of Social Security for their retirement years. Common wisdom in the United States is that Americans are not adequately prepared to finance their retirement. We need solutions and we need them now.
Individual retirement security is without question a priority for our nations policymakers. There seems to be a consensus on the need to do something, but we are putting off doing some simple and sensible things while we listen to a political and academic debate about what a perfect solution might be in an ideal world. That makes no sense.
We are losing precious time, as well as the time value of retirement dollars. The Flow of Funds Account shows that the U.S. personal savings rate dropped from 12.2% in 1980 to 6.2% in 1998. Seventy percent of American workers say they have started saving for retirement. Most acknowledge they are not saving enough, and frighteningly the remaining 30% are not saving at all.
Perhaps the 20%-plus returns available in the stock market of the 1990s made us think we had plenty of time to take action to help people secure their retirement. If so, the recent dramatic downturn in the stock market should serve as our wakeup call. Given our nations demographics, our window of opportunity is closing quickly. Lets act with a sense of urgency and take a series of small but crucial steps.
Employer-to-employee pension education: Studies show, and Ive seen it in my own business career, that many employers will offer 401(k) matching funds and then walk away. While the match helps to increase employee participation in retirement plans, it simply isnt enough.
Employers need to do more to boost participation. They must reach out and inform workers at all levels about retirement savings alternatives. And they have to make it easy for employees to get advice and manage their accounts through online tools.
Studies show that the more employees are informed about and comfortable with their personal financial picture, the more productive they are. This financial security is good business, and employers should recognize it.
Government-encouraged personal savings initiatives: While sides argue over the role of government in funding individual retirements, one issue that cannot be debated is the governments responsibility to make it feasible for employers to offer retirement plans and for employees to participate in them. Currently, seven out of 10 small businesses do not offer retirement plans. We need a national retirement program like the one proposed in the Comprehensive Retirement Security and Pension Reform Act of 2001 also known as the Portman/Cardin bill which was recently passed by the House.
We need legislation that would simplify the process an employer has to go through to set up a retirement plan for its employees. Cutting away some of the red tape would make a big difference for small businesses. We need legislation that would provide for quicker vesting, and increased portability, to protect employees in a mobile work force.
We need legislation that would raise the contribution limits, so private retirement savings could carry more of the burden of retirement costs. And we need legislation that would permit catch-up contributions to retirement savings accounts by those who left the work force to raise children or care for aging parents, and who now plan to re-enter the work force.
What we dont need are rash or radical reforms. We need simple and sensible solutions that encourage individuals and families to save as much as they can, and we ought to show sensitivity to the job and lifestyle changes they face. We should create incentives both for organizations that offer retirement plans and for employees who participate in them.
Coordinated public service education: Americans of all ages need materials that contain simple and compelling messages about retirement savings. I suggest a partnership among government, business, and nonprofits to develop a public service campaign on personal financial health. Partnerships like this have been successful in distributing information about personal physical health, with research groups, pharmaceutical companies and other private-sector companies, nonprofit agencies, and educational institutions working together to prevent or solve problems.
Public education aimed at the dot-com generation: We clearly have failed to make personal finance education a priority in our nations schools. Our children need more than professional or technical career training; we must help them understand how to manage the money they earn. Education research shows that the sooner such programs are implemented, the better off students are in adulthood.
Low-cost, high-quality advice services for older Americans: As individuals age, their personal financial affairs become increasingly complex. Linda K. George, a professor of sociology at Duke University and an expert on aging, says retired Americans No. 1 fear is that they will run out of money.
The elderly are often frustrated by the decisions they face in estate planning, housing alternatives, long-term care, and IRA distribution. The public and private sector must work together to ensure that older Americans have access to simple and effective professional advice.
We need to act. The United States is in a position to be the envy of the world in private retirement. Immediate attention, through partnership and actions from government, businesses, and think tanks, will go a long way toward making this happen.
Mr. Jurgensen is CEO of Nationwide Insurance and Nationwide Financial Services. He will turn 50 in August.