The 401(k) system has led to deep financial woes for a generation of American workers, leaving most people with inadequate retirement savings and dreary prospects for their latter years, according to a new research report.
The widespread adoption of 401(k) plans in the last three decades has benefited upper-income workers, providing them with a coveted tax break even as it has left them at the mercy of the volatile stock market, according to the analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank.
But the 401(k) system has been a dud for the vast majority of Americans, with women, young people and minorities among the broad groups whose financial well-being is at risk because they're not saving enough.
"Retirement insecurity has worsened for most Americans as retirement wealth has become more unequal," the report says. "For many groups, the typical household has no savings in retirement accounts and balances are low even when focusing only on households with savings."
The report generally doesn't break new ground. Many of the statistics have been talked about for years in financial and public-policy circles.
For example, there's been extensive hand-wringing over the years that people don't understand 401(k)s, don't save enough and invest too conservatively to sustain themselves through old age.
But the report underscores the shifting tone of the national retirement discussion – from suggestions on ways that 401(k)s can be improved to calls for the current system to be scrapped entirely in favor of something else.
For middle-income earners, the median balance in 401(k) plans as of 2010 was a lowly $23,000, according to the study.
Only 52% of middle-income households had 401(k) accounts, according to the study. That compares to 88% of households in the top 20% of income.
Not surprisingly, 401(k) savings are clustered among the ranks of the affluent, with 72% of total savings held by the top 20% income group.