Paying the bills puts pension saving on hold

Oct 02 2008 by Nic Paton Print This Article

Against the backdrop of the financial and economic crisis facing the country, the fact that within four out of 10 American businesses fewer than 70% of workers are contributing towards a pension may not seem a big deal. But it is.

The finding that, among a significant minority of firms, not even three quarters of workers pay into the occupational pension on offer is deeply worrying, research by consultancy firm Aon has argued.

Just as concerning was the conclusion that, for two thirds of these firms, the main reason employees were not paying in was simply that they could not afford to do so.

The poll of 1,100 U.S firms found that more than nine out of 10 offered defined contribution 401(K) occupational pension plans to their employees and 92 per cent of employers contributed.

But within 40 per cent of these fewer 70 per cent of their workforce was participating, with more than two thirds saying the reason for this was that employees simply could not afford to make contributions.

"In this sluggish economy, which has seen record high gas and food prices and home foreclosure rates, it's not surprising that employees may sacrifice retirement plan contributions to fund other necessities," said Cecil Hemingway, executive vice president and Aon Consulting's U.S retirement practice leader.

"That said, employers should strive for 70 per cent or higher employee participation rates. A mark of less than 70 per cent indicates a poor plan, poor communication, or both," he added.

The poll adds to evidence that, when push comes to shove financially, it is pension and retirement funding, perhaps unsurprisingly, that goes out of the window, even though such short-term cutting back is potentially storing up severe problems for the future.

Back in April a study by the Wall Street Journal Online/Harris Interactive Personal Finance reported that a quarter of U.S adults who were actively planning for their retirement were undoing all their good work by prematurely withdrawing money from their retirement investment products.

Yet what employers needed to be emphasising was that, in straitened times, it is even more important to be saving for a rainy day, argued Hemingway.

"During this economy, employers should emphasize the financial advantages of contributing to a 401(k) plan, such as being able to reduce federal income taxes and receive employer matching contributions," he pointed out.

Most employees would need on average between 77 and 94 per cent of their pre-retirement income to maintain their current lifestyle in retirement, something they were putting at risk by cutting back on their savings.

Yet just a tenth of employers believed their employees understood, to a great or very great extent, the percentage of pre-retirement income they would need to maintain their current standard of living in retirement.

Nearly half felt their employees only understood this to some extent and more than two thirds of employers that offer personalised web-based retirement planning tools estimated that fewer than half of their participants had used them in the past year.

"Despite the resources available, it is clear the message is not getting through to employees," Hemingway said.

"This survey confirms that it may not be the form of communication or the tools provided but the content being communicated.

"To motivate employees to save for their future, communication and tools must be relevant and engaging, such as taking personal information to calculate whether or not the participant is on track for retirement and outlining a plan to help them improve their savings," he added.