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America’s Retirement System Is Failing Us: Economist

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Your "golden years" may not be so golden.

The majority of Americans (75 percent) nearing retirement age had less than $30,000 in their retirement accounts in 2010. For the poorest Americans in the 50-to-64-age bracket, the average amount saved for retirement was $16,034.

The lack of nest egg savings could become an acute crisis in the U.S. and should force a reexamination of the nation's retirement system, says Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor of economics at The New School.

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, Ghilarducci argues that the current retirement savings model has failed middle-class Americans. The "do-it-yourself" pension system — aka 401(k) plans — that replaced traditional pension packages 30 years ago mistakenly assumed that individuals without investment experience could "reap the same results as professional investors and money managers," she writes.

In an interview with The Daily Ticker, she says individuals "were asked to do what they really couldn't do. Not because they're irresponsible, not because they didn't plan well, not because they didn't have enough financial literacy. That system asked humans to do what they just can't do — anticipate the future."

The savings accrued by the majority of middle class seniors will not support their current standard of living, Ghilarducci says. Americans should save at least 8 times their annual income to maintain their living standards (she strongly recommends increasing that number to 20 times if possible). For those earning $100,000 a year at the time of retirement, at least $2 million or more would be needed.

Unfortunately most Americans are ill-equipped for retirement and she estimates that 49 percent of middle-class workers will live on a food budget of less than $5 a day — poverty-like conditions.

Americans can no longer lean on social security checks or late retirements as safety nets Ghilarducci notes. Social Security and other entitlement programs have been under attack in Congress. A growing number of lawmakers from both sides of the isle support reducing or curtailing government spending on these 77-year old institutions as means to lower the national deficit. Workers over the age of 55 have a harder time finding employment than younger workers and when they do find work it's usually a big wage cut or reduced hours. According to the Labor Department, 6.2 percent of Americans over the age of 55 were unemployed in July and 50 percent of that group had been out of work for six months or more.

Saving for retirement has become especially hard for many Americans who are struggling to pay everyday expenses. That's why Ghilarducci wants to reform Americans' approach to retirement. She advocates instituting mandatory retirement accounts for all Americans. These would be professionally managed with a guaranteed rate return and annuity payment. This mandated account would be a supplement — not a replacement — to Social Security and other private retirement accounts.

"People need to save a lot more," she says. "Social security is a base but it's not enough. I'm just advocating that people save more."

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