Not-so-golden years

ABOUT RETIREMENT, IT'S BEEN said that it's nice to get out of the rat race ... but you have to learn to get along with less cheese. That's a dilemma a lot more people are going to be facing pretty soon.

According to a string of recent gloomy studies, most people are kidding themselves if they think they'll have enough gold during their golden years.

Depending on how close they are to retirement, the news goes from bad to worse. Up to 35% of baby boomers, who start retiring in two years, haven't saved enough to maintain their standard of living once they stop punching the clock. As many as half of employees in their 30s and 40s are expected to have too teeny a nest egg to fall back on.

The main problem is that Americans continue to spend like sailors on shore leave rather than socking away even a small amount of cash. Indeed, last year the nation's savings rate dipped into negative territory for the first time since World War II.

Of course, Americans have never been renowned savers. And so what? As long as most people can remember, all they had to do was work hard and pay taxes and they'd get a cushy pension and a Social Security check that meant they were fine.

Those days are over, likely for good. As the population ages, it means the number of retirees is growing a lot faster than the number of younger workers who can support them. Eventually, something has to give. That's one reason companies are shedding their pension plans in favor of cheaper 401(k) retirement plans, and why anyone who didn't grow up with the Beach Boys should worry about cuts in Social Security benefits by the time they'll be old enough to get them.

If there is a silver lining in all this doom and gloom, it's the small but growing number of employers who are trying to help workers save more. One increasingly popular tactic is automatically enrolling employees into retirement savings plans rather than waiting for them to sign up. Research shows that up to a quarter of employees who qualify for retirement plans don't enroll. Another tactic is encouraging workers to save 1% or more of all raises.

Some people, of course, do not earn enough to save meaningful amounts. It would be nice if instead of focusing on tax relief for the wealthy, Congress were more inventive in devising savings programs for less-affluent workers. Is there a more portable individual retirement account (portable from one job to the next, that is) to which employers could be encouraged to contribute? Federal employees benefit from a government thrift plan that could serve as a model for businesses.

Still, any of these savings plans also requires a bit of a cultural readjustment for Americans to put aside more for retirement. It won't be easy, but those who don't shouldn't be surprised at what lies on the other side of the rat race's finish line.

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