Friday, June 17, 2011

Pensions and 401(k)s: A Shotgun Marriage?

As Boomers, we witnessed the placing of the pension plan on the endangered list, a relic of the past, a dinosaur left to the fate of its size and lack of adaptability. I personally miss them.

Is the pension plan, the dinosaur retirement plan of times gone by the answer to getting the older worker to retire at the historic retirement age and the answer to all of the economic problems facing the country right now?Possibly. Monique Morrissey, an economist and Ross Eisenbrey, the vice president of Economic Policy Institute recently offered their thoughts on why the pension offered the older worker the kind of security that is mostly absent in the 401(k).

Are pensions dinosaurs?
The idea has legs but not based on how they believe it could be achieved. While the authors suggest: "workers with only 401(k)s are better off than the nearly half of full-time workers with no retirement plan at all. The impact extends beyond older workers, their families, and younger workers waiting in the wings." They believe that adjustments made at the legislative level to make health insurance more affordable would be enough to give older workers the needed nudge to retire on time.

If, as many people I have spoken with admit, we'll never go back to pensions, perhaps we should instead look to some sort of hybrid idea. The 401(k) had the net effect of shifting risk to the worker, allowing for worker mobility and giving the employer a cost savings not present in the pension plans many were managing. Now, we pine for the days of the pension.

The birth of the 401(k)
Not that this was how it actually happened, but you can picture the backroom thinking: we'll shift the burden of retirement (and risk) on our workers and force them to buy into the stock market. The market will boom (see the bull market that coincided with the advent of the 401(k)) and everyone will be happy. We'll have a mobile and disposable workforce that can take their money with them when we no longer need them. No pensions, no loyalties, no ties that bind for decades, no human capital trade-offs in the early years. Genius. As I said, not that this actually happened. And furthermore, I believe that when Ted Benna, the father of the 401(k) and discoverer of the line in the tax code introduced the notion, this wasn't what he envisioned.

Fast forward three decades
And then the housing crisis crippled the mobility part. Too many people want to move to another city for another job but won't or simply can't. Older workers who have work are focused on being sure that they can retire and as a result are clogging the system of job turnover, necessary to accommodate the growing workforce.

Rather than shift the burden on the government by making benefits more accessible, why not use a pension trick. If employers offered an incentive like the five best, older workers might be willing to move on. Here's how it would work. In most instances, older workers earn the most in the final years of work. Why not reward them for their loyalty and expertise by offering a double or even triple contribution to their 401(k) if they also max-out their contribution. Rather than pushing the burden of catch-up onto the employee, the employer would also step-up their matches as well. It would probably require a tweak of two to current law to allow it. But the change would be worth it.

Three things would happen.
The older worker would get this massive incentive to save more in the final years and although they wouldn't be forced to retire, the contribution bonus could end at 65. The worker could stay on but the catch-up period would be over. This would allow the older worker to see the advantages of saving more sooner and capitalizing on the contribution bump. And the employer would see an offset in cost with a new hire, often employed for far less than the older worker.

The best of pensions combined with the self-direction of 401(k)s and the incentive to retire seems to be a simple tweak, a proverbial gold watch and a more secure older worker entering retirement. And the job cycle would, at least in theory, get moving again. And while Washington is legislating, how about requiring index funds in all 401(k) plans and annuities (which are forbidden to consider sex when tucked in these plans - which is a benefit for women in particular and men as well).

Paul Petillo is the managing editor of and a fellow Boomer.

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