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401(k)-dependent retirees face uncertainty

If you've braved that dreaded glimpse at your quarterly 401(k) statement, you deserve some gallows humor.

There's Jay Leno's "My 401(k) is now a 201(k)" or Barack Obama's "101(k)" punch line. Or this one: "Wall Street 401(k) sale: Today — 40 percent off."

This one's for World Series fans: "For all you baseball fans scoring at home: Who'd have thought that in our 401(k)s, the K would stand for strikeout?" Or this: "The U.S. has developed a new weapon that destroys people but leaves buildings standing. It's called the stock market."

Somebody's even making financial calamity greeting cards, including the "Lost My 401(k)" card. Inside it reads, "Have a Great Depression and a Subprime New Year."

Okay, so none are knee-slappers. Neither is the plight of our 401(k)s. Hard to laugh when many of us could have paid off our mortgages with what we've lost since Jan. 1.

In the past 15 months, we have watched more than $2-trillion — that's about 20 percent — of Americans' retirement money evaporate in the swooning stock markets.

What few of us may realize is we're all just guinea pigs. The 401(k) — subject to market swings and your own investing skills — remains little more than an untested theory. No generation of retirees has tried to live off them yet.

Now comes a wave of Baby Boomers heading into the retirement years. For those counting on 401(k) savings (with a Social Security supplement), it's starting to look like a pretty perilous idea.

"We are in uncharted territory. The 401(k) plan has been around for less than 30 years, and we've not yet had a generation of workers retire on all or mostly 401(k) assets," says Alan Glickstein, a senior retirement consultant at Watson Wyatt, an employee benefits firm.

"What happens when market volatility makes 401(k) investment returns and retirement income anything but predictable?"

For us working stiffs over 50, the recent 401(k) pummeling has many of us rethinking how much longer we will now need to work to rebuild a nest egg that might — not will but might —see us through the golden years.

For many folks already retired but still able to work at some task, getting back into the job market may now be a financial necessity.

The timing is atrocious, given a recession with a 7 percent metrowide unemployment rate.

The hurt is not just on workers. For employers, the crushed 401(k) holdings of their own employees pose new challenges.

Glickstein sees a rising trend of aging workers who companies had assumed would retire but who are now anxious to hang on to their jobs. That not only clogs up the line of promotion, but in this tough economy, it also puts new cost pressures on businesses trying to downsize.

General Motors' decision to stop matching employee contributions to 401(k) plans isn't lightening the mood. People worry that if it's good for GM, it could be good for the rest of America to follow suit.

What timing. By sheer chance, Congress this year decided "National Save for Retirement" week would be held last week: Oct. 19 – 25.

Had our legislators only known what was coming, they could have renamed it "Hang On To a Job at All Costs" week instead.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

401(k)-dependent retirees face uncertainty 10/27/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 31, 2008 8:23pm]
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