Despite many drawbacks, the 401(k) plan is our most prized employee benefit other than health care, new research shows. More than half of workers value this savings plan even above a traditional pension that guarantees income for life.
Some 61% of workers with at least $10,000 in investments say that, after health care, an employer-sponsored savings plan is their most important benefit, according to a Wells Fargo/Gallup Investor poll. This is followed by 23% of workers naming paid time off, 5% naming life insurance, and 4% naming stock options. Some 52% say they prefer a 401(k) plan to a traditional pension.
These findings come as new flaws in our 401(k)-based retirement system surface on a regular basis. Plans are still riddled with expenses and hidden fees, though in general expenses have been going down. Too many workers don’t contribute enough and lose out by borrowing from their plans or taking early distributions. Most people don’t know how to make a lump sum last through 20 or 30 years of retirement. And the common rule of withdrawing 4% a year is an imperfect strategy.
The biggest flaw of all may be that most 401(k) plans do not provide a guaranteed lifetime income stream. This issue has gotten loads of attention since the financial crisis, which laid waste to the dreams of millions of folks that had planned to retire at just the wrong moment. Many were forced to sell shares when the market was hitting bottom and suffered permanent, devastating losses.
Policymakers are now feverishly looking for seamless and cost-effective ways for retirees to convert part of their 401(k) plan to an insurance product like an immediate annuity, which would provide guaranteed lifetime income in addition to Social Security and give retirees a stable base to meet monthly expenses for as long as they live. Such a conversion feature would fill the income hole left by employers that have been all but eliminating traditional pensions since the 1980s.
With growing acknowledgement that lifetime income is critical, and largely missing from most workers’ plans, it seems odd that so many workers would value a 401(k) over a traditional pension. This may be because guaranteed income doesn’t seem so important while you are still at work or, as has lately been the case, the stock market is rising at a rapid pace. It may also be that the 401(k) is the only savings plan many young workers have ever known, and they value having control over their assets.
Seven in 10 workers have access to a 401(k) plan and 96% of those contribute regularly, the poll found. Some 86% enjoy an employer match and 81% say the match is very important in helping to save for retirement. The 401(k) is now so ingrained that 77% in the poll favor automatic enrollment and 66% favor automatic escalation of contributions. Four in 10 even want their employer to make age-appropriate investments for them, which speaks to the soaring popularity of automatically adjusting target-date mutual funds.