Politics and religion are two topics that most people avoid because they are too divisive and too subjective.
Unfortunately, if the recently-released 2010 Retirement Confidence Survey is any indication, retirement savings might become another off-limits conversation.
First the good news: The percentage of workers optimistic about having enough money for retirement has stabilized after a tumultuous couple of years, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute’s survey. Now the bad news: That “optimist” group is 16%, which is statistically equivalent to the 20-year low of 13% that the survey measured last year.
In fact, there’s a lot to be concerned about in the latest survey if you’re a pessimistic person. Most troubling, perhaps, is what’s driving this lack of confidence: Americans in large numbers have no idea how much money they would need for retirement. Specifically, 46% of the survey’s respondents said that either they or their spouse have tried to calculate how much money they would need to have for a comfortable retirement. Furthermore, many of those who expressed confidence in their retirement savings are probably overconfident: 44% of respondents who said they are “very confident” about being comfortable in retirement have less than $50,000 saved.
“It is a sobering experience to look at these numbers,” said Danielle Holland, an assistant vice president of communications and public affairs for the Insured Retirement Institute
So what does this survey say about baby boomers?
Although the research did not categorize answers based on age groups, it is fairly tempting to draw conclusions about how savings, or the lack thereof, has changed through generations. There are all of the standard markers: Boomers did not live through the Great Depression, therefore are less likely to have an inherent frugality ingrained in them. Many are without a company pension plan. Many have kids in college and parents at home to care for.
“I think it is a generational thing,” Holland said. “In the past you worked toward retirement, you didn’t go and leverage every asset you had. Your house was paid for.”
But also: “Boomers are known for having a free, more laid-back attitude,” Holland added.
So, if we want to get at the heart of the big savings conundrum in America we may have to admit this: It’s an attitude problem.
Although much of the recent talk has been about how the Great Recession has bled the savings of so many, the fact of the matter is that most Americans never had much saved in the first place.
Which brings us to another point: It’s way past time that we make retirement savings a conversation for the dinner table. Or more importantly, advisors need to get more proactive about the conversations that they are having with clients.
“The education component is not where it should be,” Holland said. “Advisors need to acknowledge the elephant in the room. They need to say, ‘I know you‘re not prepared and I want to help with you.’”
Advisors have to look at a whole list of planning issues with their boomer clients, she said. Do client have liquid assets? Are they taking care of their parents? Do they have children? Have they taken out a second mortgage? The IRI has also been talking to advisors about not jumping the gun in talking to boomers about distribution if they are still not where they need to be in terms of accumulation.
Despite the doom and gloom, boomers still have time to take action. The recession and the stock market meltdown appear to be serving as a wake-up call. Frugality and savings have become important again. But Holland said still have a ways to go.
“I don’t want to downplay these things, but it’s going to take more than a two-year recession and high unemployment to change people’s attitudes,” she said.