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Fallout of stock market's plunge: retirement woes

A fifth of workers over age 45 have quit adding to their 401(k)s.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 17, 2008

'I'm terrified my retirement monies will be depleted.' – Cameron Beck, who planned to retire in two years but now may work longer

Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor

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Stock gyrations and a slumping economy are battering a generation's hopes for a comfortable retirement.

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The current financial crisis has destroyed more than $2 trillion of the wealth held in retirement plans, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates. Even before that loss, Americans weren't saving enough to maintain expected standards of living in their senior years.

Now the bad news from broker statements may be confronting workers and retirees with brutal choices. Pay the mortgage or keep up the 401(k) contributions? Buy groceries or leave untouched a nest egg that shrinks by the day?

"Many people are making quick-fix decisions that put their financial future at risk," says Jean Setzfand, director of financial security at AARP, in a recent analysis of the state of US retirement security.

The good news for retirees is that the bedrock of the US retirement system, Social Security benefits, remains untouched by the crisis. On Oct. 16, the Social Security Administration (SSA) announced that beneficiaries will get a 5.8 percent cost-of-living increase in their checks next year. That's the largest such rise in a quarter-century.

The average retiree will get an additional $63 per month, according to the SSA.

A majority of retired Americans get more than half their income from Social Security.

But amid the worst environment on Wall Street since the Great Depression, that $63 hike might not seem like much to retirees and workers planning for retirement. For decades, US citizens have shouldered more and more of the risk for retirement savings, as defined contribution plans such as 401(k)s increasingly replaced defined benefit plans such as pensions. In good times, that shift seemed like a good bet, as equities rose. Now the meaning of that risk shift is becoming more fully apparent.

In past downturns, workers expected that a market recovery would restore their losses, said Rep. George Miller (D) of California, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, at an Oct. 7 hearing on retirement security. Given the magnitude of recent gyrations in the stock market, that may not be the case today.

"My sense is that this somehow is different," said Representative Miller.

If nothing else, many workers may feel that they will have to work longer than they had previously planned.