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Americans are Confronted by a Looming Retirement Income Shortfall

By September 23, 2019Uncategorized

Americans are living longer, so those retiring today and in the future must plan for a longer period of spending than previous generations.

Eight in ten non-retired Americans (80%) express anxiety that their savings may not provide enough to live on in retirement, according to a landmark survey of 3,119 U.S. adults by the Alliance for Lifetime Income. This Census-balanced survey is the second in an ongoing research program tracking the level of protected versus unprotected households in the United States.

Americans who are unprotected have no source of protected lifetime income – such as a pension or annuity – other than Social Security. Sixty-three percent of Americans are unprotected for retirement, meaning they have no source of protected lifetime income – such as pensions or annuities – other than Social Security. Eighteen percent of Americans indicated that they are “extremely” anxious, whereas 26% and 36%, respectively, are “moderately” and “somewhat” anxious about their financial preparedness.

The survey further shows a fundamental disconnect between the general awareness of retirement preparedness – 40% of non-retired Americans say that “how much income they’ll have in retirement” is the most important question they face about retirement – and the fact that eight in ten (80%) non-retirees indicate they lack a specific financial plan that they follow.

These and other data from the Alliance survey, which was conducted in May 2019, spotlight the causes of a retirement income shortfall confronting millions of Americans. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. is five years away from having the most 65-year-olds in its history, when in 2024 a record 4,518,758 Americans will reach this important milestone.[i]

“At the same time that two-thirds of Americans are telling us that they’re optimistic about retirement or the next phase in life, only 42% of non-retired Americans believe their savings and sources of income will last their lifetime,” said Jean Statler, Executive Director of the Alliance for Lifetime Income.

There’s good reason for Americans to be concerned about running out of money in retirement. A June 2019 World Economic Forum report estimates that 65-year-old Americans could outlive their retirement savings within nine years.[ii]

Sources of Anxiety

Forty-five percent of non-retired Americans indicate they are extremely or moderately anxious their savings may not provide enough to live on in retirement. Conversely, 71% of retired Americans believe their savings and income will last their lifetime – evidence in part that many of today’s retirees are among the last to benefit from a pension. Today, only 17% of private sector workers have access to a pension, one of the three ways to get protected lifetime income.[iii]

Those who expressed either severe or moderate anxiety about the adequacy of their income during retirement attribute their concern to several factors, beginning with healthcare. Seventy-five percent cited the rising cost of healthcare, while 65% worry about an unforeseen healthcare need arising.

The balance of their concerns are financially related, including not having enough lifetime income (77%), not having a source of lifetime income (73%), the risk of a financial surprise (71%), not having a good retirement income plan (69%) and finally, not having enough assets (68%).

“The data underscore the inherent uncertainty of retirement. That’s why the guaranteed income required to manage unforeseen financial needs is a greater concern to non-retired Americans than not having enough financial assets,” said Statler.

The Retirement Planning Deficit

Among non-retired Americans, only 18% have “very seriously” envisioned life in retirement, while 37% have “somewhat seriously” contemplated the topic. The balance of non-retirees (45%) have “not very seriously” or “not at all seriously” envisioned life in retirement or simply “don’t know.” What’s more, when asked about the extent of planning they have already done, eight in ten (80%) indicated that they lack a specific financial plan that they follow.

Further evidence of the retirement planning deficit is that only 28% of non-retired Americans have made an effort to determine their likely monthly income needs in retirement, which is perhaps the single most important question when considering retirement income needs. Even among those closest to retirement – Americans between 55 and 74 years of age – only 43% have made such a calculation.

No less strikingly, one in five non-retired Americans are unable to indicate any next step in planning for retirement, underlining the uncertainty that many Americans have about how to prepare.

When asked about the “most recent actions” related to retirement they have taken in the past year, no single activity stands out. Non-retired Americans focus relatively evenly on three broad sets of activities: thinking about the “what” and “when” of retirement; working on the “how” (financially); or seeking insight either directly or through an advisor. Younger Americans are slightly more focused on the “how”, whereas those closest to retirement are somewhat more focused on the “what” and “when,” while demonstrating a greater propensity to seek the perspective of professional advisors.

“Planning for retirement is overwhelming for most Americans – which is why all too many shy away from running the numbers – preferring to guess at what they’ll need instead,” said Jean Chatzky, educational fellow with the Alliance and founder and CEO of HerMoney. “The key is to start with the tangibles: the type of house you think you’ll live in (and whether it will be paid off), the car you’ll drive, how often you go out to eat, what you’ll need for healthcare above Medicare. Add it up and figure out how much Social Security will or won’t cover. Those are the first steps to figuring out how much retirement income you’ll need to provide for yourself.”

Barriers to Retirement Preparedness

Six in ten non-retired Americans (61%) cite financial constraints – either lack of money, debt or the need to save for major expenses (car, home or education) – as one of their top three barriers to taking more actions to prepare for retirement. Four in ten (44%) mention the uncertainties – too many unknown factors or that it’s too far away. One third (35%) are not making the time to plan and prepare for retirement because they are either focused on every day demands or feel they don’t have enough time. One in seven (14%) don’t know what to do to plan for retirement, while one in six (16%) say they are preparing for retirement.

While not a barrier to retirement planning, the data from the Alliance study underscore that a key variable affecting the outlook of non-retired Americans is their social and advisory support structures. Most non-retired Americans indicate that they rely on family and friends when making important decisions related to their finances (68%), emotional needs (91%) or health related (80%) questions.

Non-retired Americans also have professionals to offer expertise. However, while more rely on professionals when making decisions about their health (93%) versus family and friends (80%), the opposite is true for finances. Just 60% say they have access to professionals to offer expertise about finances, though only half that number (26%) indicate that they actually work with a licensed financial professional.

“Although most of us feel comfortable relying on a medical professional for health advice, fewer rely on a financial professional for retirement advice,” noted Michael Finke, Professor and Frank M. Engel Chair of Economic Security at The American College of Financial Services. “This likely supports the other finding that retirees feel they can adapt if they live too long or markets don’t perform as expected. I would rather retirees get the guidance from retirement planning experts who can help them manage their nest egg and determine how much they can safely spend so they don’t have to worry about whether their savings will run out.”

Retirement Planning Is A Virtuous Cycle

Most people have taken at least some steps to prepare for retirement, though two out of ten (21%) cannot think of a thing they’ve done. Moreover, when asked what next step non-retirees plan to take to prepare for their retirement, their responses run the gamut: three in ten plan to save more; one in four plan to seek advice or develop a plan; two in ten plan to approximate the “when”, “what” and “where” surrounding their retirement; and two of ten don’t know what their next step will be.

The good news is that there is no single identifiable barrier for Americans on the road to retirement income security and, correspondingly, that even basic acts of discussion and planning often result in greater preparedness. The non-retired Americans who have talked a lot about retirement with their spouse or family, which represents 24% of the respondents in the Alliance survey, are more comfortable with both their retirement plans and their financial preparedness than the other three-quarters of Americans. They are characterized by the following:

  • 58% believe their income will last their lifetime;
  • 91% believe they can successfully plan for retirement;
  • 83% are very or somewhat optimistic about retirement;
  • 34% have a specific financial plan;
  • 49% have calculated how much money they will need each month to cover expenses in retirement; and
  • are more likely to expect to have more interests and pursuits, be more active physically, be more healthy, have more friends and enjoy managing finances in retirement.

“What we see in the data is that retirement planning, including taking the steps required to assure income security, is a virtuous circle. It begins with optimism for retirement, which leads to talking with others about retirement, thinking seriously about retirement and, ultimately, adhering to a strong financial plan,” said Statler.

Statler continued: “Contrary to long-held beliefs, the path to retirement security isn’t linear but rather circular in a way that can create a positive feedback loop for individuals over time. Perhaps the easiest action people can take, and what the research has shown to be an excellent gateway to income security in retirement, is starting a conversation about your retirement income plan with someone you trust.”

About the Survey

The Alliance for Lifetime Income’s 2019 Protected Lifetime Income Study is the second study in an ongoing research program tracking the level of protected/unprotected households in the United States and providing valuable insights into consumers’ attitudes and behaviors around retirement-income planning.

This online study was conducted in May 2019 among a Census-balanced cross-section of 3,119 U.S. adults ages 25-74. Study results were weighted to correspond to the distribution of the U.S. adult population based on age, income, race, education, ethnicity, and region. The study was conducted by Artemis Strategy Group.

About the Alliance

The Alliance for Lifetime Income, based in Washington, D.C., is a nonprofit 501(c)(6) organization formed and supported by some of the nation’s leading financial services organizations and non-profit consumer and industry groups to create awareness and educate Americans about the importance of protected lifetime income.

The Alliance is focused on helping to educate Americans on the risk of outliving their savings so they can enjoy their retirement lives. The Alliance provides consumers and financial advisors with the educational resources, tools and insights they can use to build plans for protected lifetime income in retirement. For more information about the Alliance, visit www.AllianceForLifetimeIncome.org.

[i] 2016 U.S. Census Bureau Data

[ii] White Paper: “Investing in (and for) Our Future.” World Economic Forum. June 2019

[iii] Bureau of Labors Statistics. “Economics Daily.” 10/2/18

Alliance Protected Lifetime Income Index Study


Alliance Protected Lifetime Income Fact Sheet