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Is The 401(k) Working?

Is the 401(k) working as a retirement plan for the American public? A lot of account balances say maybe not.

Photo Illustration (Alex Kingsbury/WBUR)

Photo Illustration (Alex Kingsbury/WBUR)

Back in the day, the 401(k) – if you had one – was just a supplement to a good old-fashioned pension. An optional way to juice up your retirement. Today, for most Americans, pensions are history and the 401(k) is the main event, after Social Security. And 401(k)s are failing.

Millions of Americans are barreling toward 65-plus with very little in the sugar bowl. The stock market has tanked and tanked again and looks shaky right now. Most human nature may not be cut out for sophisticated investing. Is there a better way?

This hour, On Point: Is the 401(k) a bust? And what would be a better way?

-Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Teresa Ghilarducci, a labor economist and nationally-recognized expert in retirement security. She’s an economics professor at The New School.

David Wray,  president of the Plan Sponsor Council of America, a national, non-profit association of companies that sponsor profit sharing and 401(k) plans.

From Tom’s Reading List

The New York Times “The only thing I haven’t dealt with on my to-do checklist is retirement planning. The reason is simple: I’m not planning to retire. More accurately, I can’t retire. My 401(k) plan, which was supposed to take care of my retirement, is in tatters.”

CBS News “The state of retirement savings in America is in big trouble. According to Fidelity Investments, the average 401(k) balance among its 11.8 million accounts increased to $74,600 at the end of the first quarter 2012, a 62 percent increase since the end of the first quarter 2009. While it’s good news that balances are up, the number of accounts is alarmingly low for such an industry giant.”

Time “One of the biggest flaws in most people’s retirement plan is something that previous generations rarely worried about: monthly income guaranteed for life. But the fix is in, and before long your 401(k) may look a lot more like your dad’s pension.”

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