Why the recession will last into retirement


Pension and retirement saving was in a mess on both sides of the Atlantic even before the recession came along.

Now, with retirement funds dwindling, workers cutting back on pensions' contributions and employers increasingy looking to pay only the bare minimum they can get away with, we're rapidly heading for a full-blown crisis.

A raft of reports over the past week have highlighted, if more evidence were needed, the extent of the problem that workers and employers are building up for the future.

A survey of 15,000 workers in 15 countries by HSBC Insurance, for example, has found that only around a tenth – 13 per cent – feel fully prepared for their retirement.

More than eight out of 10 had no idea what income they would receive in retirement, while a quarter did not fully understand their long-term finances.

While four out of 10 had done some planning for later life (although still remained unsure about what their retirement income would look like), 14 per cent candidly admitted to having done nothing at all so far.

And the recession had simply exacerbated with the problem, HSBC found, with more than nine out of 10 changing some element of their long-term financial planning.

Barely a fifth still expected to retire as planned, while 17 per cent had reduced their retirement savings or, even more worrying, stopped saving altogether.

"A perfect storm is confronting pensions planning, created by an aging population, falling pension fund values, a drop in state and employer contributions and an economic downturn which is forcing people to make tough financial choices," pointed out Stephen Green, group chairman of HSBC Insurance.

In the U.S specifically, the recession is already forcing many older workers to delay their retirement, a study of 2,200 workers by consultancy Watson Wyatt has also concluded.

It found more than a third of such workers had put back the age they intended to retire by at least a year.

More than four out of 10 workers aged over 50 planned to delay their retirement by a year and a quarter of those aged over 40.

While the average planned retirement is still age 65 for most workers, now half of those aged over 50 said they planned to retire at age 66 or even later.

Three-quarters of these older workers cited the decline in the value of their company pension schemes as the most important reason for planning to postpone their retirement.

Other factors included the high cost of health care, cited by nearly two thirds, and higher prices for basic necessities.

More than half of this age group also indicated they were now expecting to have to work for at least three years longer than thay had previously planned.

"The economic crisis has affected many workers' retirement plans and nest eggs, but those nearest to retirement have been especially hard hit," said David Speier, senior retirement consultant at Watson Wyatt.

"Older workers do not have the time to offset declining retirement account values, either by recouping their investment losses or significantly increasing their savings rate. For many, the only choice is to delay retirement," he said.

Across the Atlantic in the UK, consultancy Aon has added to the warnings on this issue, arguing that British workers and employers were "sleeepwalking" into a pensions' crisis and that only radical solutions could prevent it now.

A combination of the meagre state pension provision, low levels of individual retirement savings and the drastic decline of employer pensions were together sowing the seeds of a crisis, argued Marcus Hurd, head of corporate solutions at the company.

"Private sector final-salary schemes are dead apart from provision from a few increasingly rare employers," he pointed out.

"The major challenge facing business now is to deliver retired people what they were promised, without bankrupting companies," he added.

And more than nine out of 10 firms are planning changes to their workplace pension schemes, research by consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers has found, with more than four of 10 smaller employers and a quarter of larger ones intending to offer the "bare minimum" that they could get away from 2012 when the UK government will bring in plans for "auto-enrolment" into company pensions.

"Pensions apartheid is upon us, with a growing gap between the relative generosity of the public sector and the intention of more than a third of private sector employers to provide the bare minimum under the 2012 auto-enrolment pension requirements," said Marc Hommel, partner and UK pensions leader at PwC.

The crisis would lead not just to a two-tier pensions' system but two-tier retirements, split between the ever rarer "haves" able to retire on generous pension schemes, and the growing number of "have nots" left to sink or swim. "We will see increasing divergence in the pension provision offered by smaller and larger companies," pointed out Hommel.


Older Comments

I was pushed into an 'early retirement' exit at 50 from my corporate position and - very fortunately - landed a good position fairly quickly. Not all workers over 40 are as lucky. Many of my 50-year-old coworkers were less fortunate and had to begin then to eke out their 401ks. How can we in the industrialized nations prosper when our culture aims to limit employability and productivity to only 20-30 years and life stretches until 80, 90, or longer?