Listening to the steady stream of sobering data on how (un)prepared Americans are for retirement during several recent events on the topic has given me a certain respect for the much-maligned Captain Hook.

Hook, once bitten was twice shy. Tick-Tock, the Croc, viewed Hook as an acquired taste, and wanted to follow up his snack of Hook’s hand with a full course. The tick-tock of the clock swallowed by the croc was a constant reminder that Hook’s time might be short.

One wonders if Americans’ time might also be short when it comes to saving for retirement and whether it will swallow them up before they can prepare properly.

If that time is too short, the title of a recent conference sponsored by Barclays Global Investors in San Francisco begs the next question: What do we do now?

One thing I think is generally agreed upon is that “we” don’t remain oblivious to the problem or become paralyzed by fear or feel overwhelmed by the challenge of making retirement less financially uncertain.

The conference speakers offered a couple of practical ways to go about turning around the potential for a lean retirement. The 3 options or combinations of those options include: saving more, working longer and/or using annuitization to create a sufficient stream of retirement income.

In August, personal saving, defined as personal income less personal outlays, was a negative $45 billion, slightly better than July’s negative $70.1 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce–Bureau of Economic Analysis. As a percentage of disposable income, the respective figures were 0.5% in August and 0.7% in July. The negative rates may be due to credit cards, home equity loans, or the sale of assets or use of existing savings, says BEA.

The problem is two-pronged. Americans have to be taught to distinguish between what they want and what they need. At the same time, they need to be taught to save in increments. Saving the cost of a cup of coffee every day makes saving seem a lot more attainable and less painful than a larger, fixed amount (although, in some cases, more Spartan choices may be necessary.)

The second option, working longer, really has to start with the assumption of good health. Given that, I think Americans are open to working longer than the traditional retirement age, particularly if they are sold on the idea that it will result in greater material comfort and peace of mind in later retirement years.

Additionally, for some, realities such as a shift of health care costs back to workers may be sufficient reason to encourage them to continue to work.

The third option discussed during the Barclays seminar, annuitization, is one that if handled properly, holds promise among a broad number of Americans. I think the base assumption here is that the product is suitable. The next step is to teach producers how to simply and thoroughly explain it to the average American.

A June 2006 article by Anna Rappaport for the Society of Actuaries calls for a blank page approach in thinking about options and discusses annuitization as one new solution that could fill that “blank page.”

Hook’s nemesis, Peter Pan, may have been onto something with his preference for not wanting to grow up, or more to the point in this case, of not wanting to grow old enough to retire. But, given that none of us have that option, making practical choices like the ones discussed during the Barclays conference are worth pursuing.

Tick tock. Time is shorter than you think.

Jim Connolly

Senior Editor