Your Retirement Dream May Require Working Much Longer

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A recent Citigroup monograph, The Coming Pensions Crisis, begins with some questions very much in the spirit of our time: "What's your dream for retirement? Is it living on the beach, traveling on cruise ships...relaxing and enjoying the good life"?

Personally speaking, my dream for retirement is not to retire-at least not now. I think if Warren Buffett can keep running the world's greatest investment company at 85, and Alan Greenspan could run the world's most powerful central bank until 79-- then lecture and write books, and Hank Greenberg be battling the goliath of the government at 90, why would I stop at 73? How much sitting on the beach, going on cruises and relaxing can you stand?

What after all is "the good life"?

As used by Citigroup, "the good life" means consuming without producing. The words of an old hymn admonish us to "Work for the night is coming." Here the suggestion is instead: "Play for the night is coming." I understand that tastes differ, so may you may prefer the latter. But no one can escape the accompanying problem: how many years can you afford to play without working-to consume without producing? If you retire at 63 and live to 85, you will have been retired for a quarter of your life. Should you live to 95 instead, you will have been retired for a third of your life. On average, that cannot work financially.

As average lives grow longer, "the reality for many of us," Citigroup rightly says, "is that there isn't enough in the piggy bank to last throughout their retired life." It is just the same for many pension funds people are relying on, both private and government funds: they don't have nearly enough money in the piggy bank, either-not by a long shot.

This daunting problem-- in total, an $18 trillion shortfall by Citigroup's estimate-- is staring us in the face. There are only two answers: Put more money in the piggy bank while you are working-and as retirements grow longer, this means a lot more. Or make the retired years fewer by working longer. Or both. The math of the matter all comes down to this.

An essential element in the math is what I call the "W:R Ratio"-which is simply how many years you will work compared to how many years you will be retired. All the money spent in retirement is the result of what is saved in one fashion or another during working years. This may be what you personally saved and invested, or what your employer subtracted from your compensation and invested, or the money the government took from your compensation and spent but promised to pay back later.

The surest way to finance your retirement is to keep your W:R ratio up by not retiring too soon.

In 1950, the average age of retirement in the United States was 67. Average life expectancy at birth was 68. Average life expectancy for those who got to 65 was 79. Suppose you started work at 20, and retired at 67-working 47 years, then lived to 79. Your W:R ratio was 47 working years divided by 12 retired years or 3.9. You worked and could contribute to savings for about four years for every year of retirement.

Contrast the current situation. The average retirement age is much lower, at 63. Average life expectancy once you get to 65 is up to 86. Retirement has gotten longer from both ends. Also, many more people have post-secondary education, and begin work later. Suppose you work from 22 to 63 years old and live to 86: your W:R ratio is 41 divided by 23, or only 1.8. You have worked less than two years for each year of retirement. Can that work financially? No.

The crux of the W:R relationship is: how many years do you have to work in order to save enough to pay your expenses for one year of retirement? What is your guess? One year of work for one year of retirement-say retiring after 30 years at 55 and living to 85? No way. Two years? That would take a heroic and implausible savings rate.

Calculations show that with retirement savings of about 10% of income, and historically average real returns of 4% a year on the invested savings, the W:R ratio needs to be 3:1. That means if you start working at 22 and live to 86, the financeable retirement age is 70. Or if you start work at 25, it is 71. Or starting at 18, then 69.

If the savings are lower, or the rate of return is lower, or both, the W:R ratio and the age of retirement must rise even more. The Federal Reserve is now making the problem much worse for retirement savings by engineering low or zero or negative real interest rates. We have to hope this expropriation of savers by the Fed is temporary, historically speaking.

Definitely temporary, historically speaking, was the idea that while still in good health and capable in many cases of productive work in a service economy, people should instead expect to be comfortably paid for long years of play. When combined with greatly extended longevity, this 1950s dream was simply unrealistic, indeed impossible-- to which today's savings and pension fund shortfalls bear witness. We have to adjust our expectations and plans back to higher average W:R ratios and later retirements than in recent times.


Alex J. Pollock is a distinguished senior fellow at the R Street Institute in Washington, D.C. He was President and CEO of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago from 1991-2004.  

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