“The most important advice about saving for retirement is this:” the New York Times’ retirement savings guide begins. “Start now.”
If young Americans had a nickel for every time they got that financial advice, well, they wouldn’t have to worry so much about their retirement security. But many young workers are finding it impossible to put aside even a fraction of their paychecks.
Americans aged 18 to 29 years are also twice as likely as adults in any other age group to be shouldering student debts, according to the Education Data Initiative. The end of the pandemic moratorium on student debt payments this fall will be crushing, leaving young people with even less disposable income to set aside for their retirement.
Younger workers are also heavily represented in low-wage jobs. In 2020, those under age 25 made up less than 20 percent of hourly paid workers but 48 percent of those earning the federal minimum wage or less.
Even if low-wage workers have a 401(k)-retirement plan with matching funds, they often cannot afford to take advantage of this benefit. A joint report by our team at the Institute for Policy Studies and Jobs with Justice examined the retirement divide within some of the country’s leading low-wage employers.
At Walmart, for example, 46 percent of eligible participants in the retailer’s 401(k) plan have zero balances. By contrast, the Walmart CEO has $169 million in a special retirement account set up just for top executives.
Our report found similar divides at Chipotle, Hyatt, Home Depot, McDonald’s, Tyson Foods, Target, Petco, and other companies.
These firms’ CEOs are all set to receive more in monthly retirement checks than their typical workers make in an entire year. Meanwhile, at least a third of their employees have not been able to put any money in their 401(k) plans.
Young Americans also appear to be less likely to save for their “golden years” because more and more of them are having a hard time envisioning a livable future.
According to Intuit, almost three in four young people say the current economic climate makes them hesitant to set up long-term goals.
Climate change, of course, has contributed to this pessimism. It’s hard to imagine benefiting from prudent retirement planning when our planet is burning up.
To give young Americans a chance of living to see dignified retirements, we need to tackle the short and long-term obstacles to saving: Let’s raise wages, strengthen labor rights, guarantee housing and healthcare, and fight climate change.
Immediately, we need to strengthen Social Security. Protecting and expanding this public pillar of our national retirement system will be critical for those unable to build big enough nest eggs on their own in our flawed system.
How can we pay for that? Right now, CEOs and other rich Americans stop contributing to the Social Security fund early in the year, after they hit the wage cap on payroll taxes of $160,200. Most working people, on the other hand, pay into this fund all year.
We could shore up Social Security simply by requiring high earners to pay the same share of their total income into the system as ordinary workers. And we should end those special tax privileges for CEO retirement accounts to support a secure retirement system for everyone.
A substantial movement is building, lobbying to expand Social Security and pushing back against Republican efforts to shrink these vital benefits.
But, currently, this movement consists mostly of groups representing older Americans — not the young people with the biggest long-term stake in a retirement security system for all.
That should change.