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No Surprise

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Was anybody really surprised at the results revealed in the Employee Benefits Research Institute’s most recent Retirement Confidence Survey?

In the last year, the percentage of workers who say they are very confident about affording a comfortable retirement plunged from 27% to 18%. Among retirees, for whom the situation is, so to speak, closer to home, the percentage similarly dropped from 41% in 2007 to only 29% this year.

It’s probably the not-so-mysterious workings of gasoline prices. There seems to be an inverse correlation between rising (not to say, skyrocketing) gasoline prices and consumer confidence. When gas goes up, confidence plummets. And as anyone who drives knows, the price of gasoline is doing a more than fair imitation of 0 to 60 in 5 seconds.

But it’s not only gas, it’s other forms of energy too. And food. And health care. And just about anything else you have to purchase.

And it’s seeing how housing prices have been battered. The decline in value has been like a punch in the stomach to those people who looked at their home as an annuity in the making and who counted on selling it for a big profit so they could bankroll a comfortable retirement.

In the story about this survey in last week’s issue, it was noted that the decline in confidence went across all age groups and income levels.

Mathew Greenwald, whose firm co-sponsored the survey with EBRI, said, “It’s disheartening but understandable that retirement confidence has gone down. But it’s my view that much of the confidence observed in previous years was false confidence.”

Then he added, “Perhaps now people are getting more realistic, which hopefully is a precursor to more effective financial preparation for retirement.”

I respect Mathew and his work greatly, but I have to wonder if this last sentiment is hope, or false hope.

It was hard enough getting people to focus on getting ready for retirement when times were good, but maybe that was because they were too busy spending and didn’t have the time to think about what they were going to do beyond the day after tomorrow.

Now, when things are getting tight across the board, is it really going to be any easier for people to think about socking money away for a “comfortable retirement,” when it can cost 100 bucks to fill up your car?

The irony is that people may be getting more realistic just at the time they are less able to afford taking the steps necessary to be comfortable later on.

Nor were EBRI and Greenwald much more comforting when it came to what looks like another false hope that is widespread among the public; namely, that they can and will work into their 70s.

Here Greenwald said, “A longer working life is not something that everyone who wants it gets.” Stuff, apparently, does happen to crush this hope; stuff like health problems, disability or being undone by circumstances beyond one’s control, like being downsized. One more false expectation that takes a hit!

And Wal-Mart, no matter how big it gets, surely has a limit on how many senior greeters it can hire.

It would seem that a massive disabusing of false hopes and expectations is necessary to get people to face up to the reality that their golden years may turn out to be merely gold-plated. But it’s hard to see how that’s going to do much to bolster confidence, at least short-term.


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