The American ideal of a happy, secure retirement is under threat as the economy changes and the financial foundations that supported previous generations erode. The decline of traditional pensions has increasingly shifted the retirement burden to personal savings, but stagnant wages and rising health care costs mean that it’s harder for Americans to build up a nest egg that can cover their costs through a longer lifespan. Social Security is on track to become insolvent in another decade or so, raising the possibility that even the marquee national safety-net program will have to reduce benefits to millions. As a result, older workers are postponing retirement, and businesses are feeling the effects in the form of reduced productivity.
Washington created the incentives that have shaped retirement for nearly a century. Now, who is responsible for safeguarding the financial well-being of older Americans? What should be done, and what’s even possible politically? […]
Although they come from different sectors and political perspectives, the [bipartisan working group] reached broad agreement on four key problems and potential solutions.
An independent commission could help build political consensus. American retirement hasn’t been comprehensively addressed for decades. One way to move forward would be for Congress to establish a high-profile independent commission. Though not a policy change in itself, a commission would bring needed attention to the issue, set an official baseline for the problem and launch the conversation on reforms, from small-scale adjustments to a wide-ranging revamp of the U.S. retirement system.
More Americans need access to retirement savings plans. The retirement system is still highly dependent on employers, and far more dependent on the 401(k) than even its inventor envisioned. A simpler and portable account would give workers more consistent access to tax-advantaged savings and leave them less vulnerable to gaps caused by job changes and financial emergencies.
Requirements matter, but can’t be a “mandate.” Experience has shown that Americans have trouble setting aside money for retirement outside of employer-sponsored retirement plans, and an extremely effective way to increase savings is to require that employers offer retirement plans to employees. However, there was broad agreement that a “mandate” to employers is politically toxic; even advocates acknowledged the political challenge of creating a requirement without calling it a mandate.
Social Security could provide political cover. Any changes to the retirement system are more likely to get political support if they are undertaken as part of a revamp of Social Security, which enjoys broad support in American society from across the political spectrum.
This POLITICO working group report summarizes the discussion and details the solutions the group arrived at, as well as some of the obstacles it identified. It’s part of a yearlong journalism series called the Future of Prosperity, exploring the long-term challenges facing Americans’ financial well-being.
The whole report is available here.
This article republishes selections from “How to solve the retirement crisis: A Politico Working Group Report,” published by Politico Magazine in June 2018.