Will bitter 70-year-olds become a common sight in the office?

Nov 19 2008 by Nic Paton Print This Article

Even before the financial meltdown America was facing a retirement crisis. Now, with workers ever more reliant on stock market-based pensions that are collapsing in value and focused on meeting daily bills rather than saving for their old age, the U.S is heading into murky and uncharted waters.

According to Workforce Management, the current generation of mid-career, forty-something workers is the first to be predominantly reliant on stock market-linked 401(k) pension plans - meaning that, unlike their parents, they will not have a guaranteed source of retirement income.

With final salary, defined-benefit plans now a rarity, retiree health plans being scrapped as an indulgence employers can no longer afford, the stock market in freefall and many mid-career workers facing the prospect of redundancy, the dream of retiring in your sixties, even your late sixties, is becoming ever more distant.

And the consequences for workplaces, and managers, of this demographic shift could be catastrophic, it warned.

A mass of older workers past the traditional retirement age could create huge bottlenecks that jam up companies, making it much harder for firms to promote talented individuals and stopping younger workers get on the career ladder.

Even worse, firms could find themselves having to manage a population of "ageing slackers", or older workers who are doing just the bare minimum to get a pay cheque without getting fired.

Teresa Ghilarducci of the New School for Social Research in New York, told the publication: "At the very least, employers may be facing employee disaffection. Employee revenge often comes in the form of work slowdown. It's not so hard to do just enough to get by without getting fired."

Then there is the worrying prospect of disgruntled older workers resorting to litigation or even work sabotage because of their lack of retirement savings.

Employers that failed to think about these issues ran the risk of becoming less competitive, warned Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

"If companies think they are going to be stuck with less-productive workers who are being paid relatively high compensation, they have a financial incentive to help those people accumulate substantive retirement savings," she said.

This is by no means the first warning of its kind, and probably won't be the last.

Just last month, a survey by consultancy firm Aon found that, within four out of 10 American businesses, fewer than 70 per cent of workers were contributing towards a pension.

And 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.

Research from the Center for Retirement Research has also shown that the average amount in 401(k) accounts is currently $35,000 for a head of household 40 to 49 years old, said Workforce Management.

Yet on average a married couple looking to retire in 2030 would need to save $378,000 to purchase an annuity that would cover just out-of-pocket health care costs in retirement.

"We are going to have a major crisis 30 years from now unless we have a very strong economy and robust stock market," said Ted Benna, chief operating officer of Malvern Benefits, a 401(k) plan administrator.

One way employers are trying to help mid-career workers is by offering them financial education, added Workforce Management.

It cited the example of IBM, which last year launched MoneySmart, a phone-based personal financial planning service for all its 128,000 U.S employees.

A key element of this has been to help out employers in their 40s and 50s manage their retirement saving since the company froze its defined-benefit plan earlier this year, Karen Salinaro, vice president of compensation and benefits, told the publication.

"This middle group of employees has multiple concerns ranging from college savings to retirement to whether they need or want a second career," she said.

"They need a customised approach where they can sit with a counsellor and go through the issues," she added.