Despite the blessings of youth–I’m 24 years old, with limber joints and without mortgage payments–I am aware that we have something of a retirement crisis on our hands.
You can’t miss it if you watch sports on TV, where financial-services firms pitch themselves to worried middle-aged men. I can’t miss it either when I call home. My parents are in fine shape, thank goodness, but like any other self-respecting late-50-something professionals, they are gaming out survival plans for so many improbable scenarios. And it didn’t take a lot of days on the job for me to notice that my employer was lowering its match on employees’ 401(k)s, leading to grumbling among some of my older co-workers, who saw their defined-benefit pension plans end in 2010.
The boomers, we’re told, might be going bust. But what–if I may be so millennial–about me? Sixty percent of American millennials, the approximately 85 million of us born from 1980 to 1999, expect to retire at age 65 or earlier, according to a recent survey from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. Yet we came of age in an economic climate worse than any since the Great Depression, impossibly far from the postwar prosperity that greased our grandparents into the workforce. That alone seems to limit the chances of retirement’s having a future at all like its present.
More than that, we fancy ourselves a new breed. We think freely. We never unplug. We invented Pinterest. So even if we did have the financial wherewithal to retire in 40 years, should we want to? Are decades spent away from the office good for our bodies and brains? Does it make us happier to officially transition to a new phase so late in life? Perhaps retirement, this august institution that came of age in the era of World War II, has reached its own retirement date. I decided to find out.
Preparing for Retirement
My first call goes to Alexa Von Tobel, the CEO of LearnVest, a firm that bills itself as a financial planner for average Americans. LearnVest aims to make wealth care, as von Tobel puts it, as accessible as health care, with financial-planning packages priced in the mid-hundreds. Though the business won’t disclose its client numbers, LearnVest has raised more than $70 million in venture funding. Von Tobel has been on the cover of Forbes and on the cover of her own book, Financially Fearless. The one caveat about her retirement expertise? She’s 31. But considering she was twice admitted to Harvard (she earned her B.A. in 2006 and left business school in 2008 to start LearnVest), while I was twice rejected from Harvard, I thought myself in no position to judge.
Von Tobel invited me this summer to LearnVest’s New York City offices, on two sunny floors a few blocks from Union Square. Even sunnier than the space is von Tobel herself, energetic and quick to launch into a speech confirming the nation’s collective retirement peril. “In my book, Financially Fearless,” she says, “I almost wrote a whole chapter on the history of why I believe we have a huge financial crisis looming.” She fears that the mixture of widespread access to credit and widespread financial illiteracy will doom the nation.
The numbers do cast a distinct pall. A 2010 study from the Center for Retirement Research says 53% of U.S. households are at risk of losing their standard of living when their earners retire; in 1989 only 30% of households faced such a predicament. And that number concerns only people over the age of 30. The long-term financial prospects for millennials are even gloomier: according to the Project on Student Debt, 7 in 10 college graduates from the class of 2012 carried debt, with an average per-debtor load of $29,400. They graduated into an economy seemingly hostile to young workers, with an unemployment rate for job seekers ages 20 to 24 that averaged 12.8% for the year 2013. The unemployment rate for those ages 25 to 54 was less than half that, at 6.3%. And young workers with jobs should not consider themselves especially lucky; studies show that recession-era graduates often deal with depressed wages for the first decade of their careers.
Though millennial workers began saving for retirement earlier–the Transamerica study says 22 is the median age at which my generation’s workers started saving, compared with 27 for Gen X and 35 for baby boomers–they’ve also been under more pressure. According to a recent Wells Fargo study, 47% of millennials spend more than half their monthly income paying off debt; 4 in 10 call themselves “overwhelmed” by debt. They’re saving to dispel future gloom, but they’re already in the thick of it.
Von Tobel says a change in perspective helps. To our sit-down, she brought along Stephany Kirkpatrick, the firm’s resident retirement expert. Kirkpatrick considers saving a matter of behavioral psychology. No one wants to save for retirement, she says, when it looks like a mountain in need of scaling. But when clients see the merits of incremental savings modeled over 30 years, they perk up. Kirkpatrick and von Tobel tell me I ought to sock away a little bit more in a Roth IRA. It could do so much for me, and the numbers do look good.
But, I protest, I’m young and employed. I’m supposed to spend money on frivolous things! Besides, I say, what little employability I have comes from my brain. I’m not going to break down in my mid-60s. Why would I ever need to retire?
Von Tobel looks at me, and her tone turns serious again. “How do you know you’re not going to have a brain injury or something else happen? We just don’t know. We’re in this line of business, so we see all kinds of really great people that just didn’t know that something could happen.” Nice brain ya got there, I silently translate. It would be a real shame if something happened to it.
So I guess I have no choice but to save: Save by investing in the stock market, save by abstaining from indulgence, save by any means necessary. In preparing for retirement, there is no magic, only savings and more savings. I leave my LearnVest consultation planning to act on von Tobel’s simplest tips. I sign up for a high-yield online savings account and a Roth IRA (down a cool 1.85% at press time) and vow to limit my credit-card debt, buy more insurance and plan my monthly budgets. But I also get to asking myself many questions about the savings gospel. The biggest one: What’s in it for us?
The Early Retiree
One muggy Friday morning in houston, I meet a very happy retiree a little more than two years removed from the working world. His name is John Arnold. The father of three is all of 40 years old, and with his boyish, sheepish grin, he looks younger. Per Forbes, he possesses a modest nest egg of $2.9 billion, putting him among the 200 richest Americans.
In May 2012, Arnold did what so many workers dream of one day doing. He had gotten tired of running his hedge fund and he had made enough money at it, so he quit. But in place of a gold watch and a dinner…