Recent surveys and anecdotal
evidence show that younger workers are finally thinking
seriously about saving for retirement.
Or theyre not.
Of the various surveys of worker
sentiment published lately, even experts admit that the results
have been contradictory. Meanwhile, the actual data show that
young workers are contributing in much the same patterns as
they have been in the past.
"I think theyre a bit
confused, to be charitable," Warren Cormier, president of
Boston Research Group, says of younger workers.
Of the surveys that focus on the
positive, one nationwide study released last year by New
Yorkbased consulting firm Towers Watson reported that
fully 56 percent of the respondents under age 30 said that they
had tried to calculate how much money they will need to save
for a "comfortable retirement" and 47 percent reported that
they had reviewed their retirement plans in detail over the
past year. Those were significant jumps over the rates of that
same age cohort the prior year 36 percent and 34
percent, respectively. Indeed, according to the survey, the
levels are now on a par with those of older workers. (The
survey involved more than 9,200 people working full-time at
nongovernmental organizations with at least 1,000
Yet the results were completely the
opposite when those same employees were asked whether
retirement security has become "a more important issue" over
the past 3 years. Then, the yeses dropped to 39 percent from 52
percent a year earlier.
Similar contradictions appeared in
a nationwide, online poll of 1,400 defined contribution
participants conducted by State Street Global Advisors and
Boston Consulting Group that was released in mid-January. When
asked if they had reduced their spending over the past 12
months to improve their own retirement future, 51 percent of
those under 25 answered yes, outpacing the 42 percent for all
age groups. And 48 percent of the younger cohort said they had
increased their savings, versus 37 percent for all respondents.
However, when the question was whether they "spent at least an
hour planning for retirement," just 19 percent of the younger
people did so, below the 25 percent for all respondents.
(Year-over-year comparisons arent possible, because the
two firms had not asked these questions in previous
So forget the statistics, says
Robert Benish, the Chicago-based executive director and interim
president of the Plan Sponsor Council of America. "My sense is,
from anecdotal evidence, personal experience, discussions with
people, that it is working" that younger employees are
getting the message about planning ahead.
But the enrollment numbers tell a
different story. In Illinois-based consulting firm Aon
Hewitts biennial surveys of more than 3.5 million workers
at about 150 large companies across the U.S., the numbers are
virtually unchanged from 2010 to 2012. In 2010, 54.3 percent of
workers age 20 to 29 were participating in their companys
401(k) plan, and they contributed an average of 5.2 percent of
their salary. Two years later, 54 percent were participating
and contributing 5.1 percent of pay.
With many younger workers
apparently paralyzed by confusion, many plan sponsors have
resorted to automatic enrollment, but most companies agree that
they need better, more targeted education. Companies must be
smarter in using social media, says Fredrik Axsater, State
Streets global head of defined contribution.
"Some plan sponsors get a bit
nervous about not controlling the content" if they offer open
forums like blogs, he says. They prefer just to tweet corporate
pronouncements. His advice: Get over it. "Its a more
meaningful, deeper dialogue thats created with two-way
conversations," he says.
Benish, of the Plan Sponsor
Council, also notes that corporate plans are starting to share
links to trustworthy, outside sources of advice on related
topics like budgeting or saving, such as the Federal Reserve.
Whatever the medium, the message should be "driven by their
peers, saying why its cool to be in the plan," says
Barbara Hogg, head of Aon Hewitts retirement
Whether these tactics work may be
apparent a year from now when the next set of surveys emerges.