For six weeks last spring, I traveled across the country filming interviews for an upcoming documentary called "Broken Eggs: The Looming Retirement Crisis in America." I am executive producing the film, which is an honest, unfiltered look at the state of retirement in our country.
After having had a year to reflect on the initial trip as we near the film's completion, here are four lessons I learned on this journey.
Lesson 1: People are aware of the problem. One preconceived notion I had before going on the trip was that Americans were blissfully unaware of the retirement crisis. I figured few knew that Americans are $6.6 trillion short of what they need to retire. In fact, most are acutely aware of the hurdles they're facing. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean they've changed. Most are unsure of what to do and are overwhelmed, which leads to inaction being their only action. But this crisis is on their minds - and they want a solution.
Lesson 2: Our industry is in a bubble. Sure, we all know what the terms "401(k)," "intelligent design," "automatic enrollment" and "model portfolios" mean. But after this trip, I can say that it's a foreign language to everyone outside our retirement industry bubble. We've done a fantastic job of complicating things, and the fallout is that there is a severe disconnect.
What are we trying to accomplish by hiding behind jargon? We need to simplify retirement and humanize it. Perhaps there's a universal way to gamify this problem to engage more people. Some have proposed a retirement scorecard, while others suggest the "set it and forget it" plan. Regardless, we need to get out of our bubble and understand that people are busy and not experts in retirement.
Lesson 3: Retirement income is grossly misunderstood. Though I found that Americans are aware of the retirement crisis, I met far too many people who are counting on Social Security as their primary or only retirement income vehicle.
As you well know, Social Security exists to make sure our seniors aren't destitute - not so they can comfortably retire. With Social Security slated to be insolvent in about two decades, our industry needs to educate plan participants on what Social Security can do - and more importantly, what it can't do.
We must stress that the three-legged stool of retirement no longer exists, and the one leg that is left is not Social Security (or a pension); personal savings is what will fuel retirement now and in the future.
Lesson 4: There is not a single, simple solution. If there was a solution to this problem, it would have already been implemented. My hope is that putting forth a blend of ideas will ultimately become a reliable solution.
We can never get to that point, however, unless we start discussing this problem. And I'm not referring to talking among ourselves. We need to engage our customers, the American people, and drill this problem into their heads.
As an industry, we need to do a better job of setting the pace for this discussion, which must be personalized. And instead of just talking at people, we must listen, and ultimately educate. Part of the solution is to use Americans' first-hand experiences planning for retirement to help craft solutions. My hope is that "Broken Eggs" ignites a conversation among all American to solve the problem. It's raw. It's honest. And these stories deserve to be heard.
Chad Parks is CEO of The Online 401(k).
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