The 401(k) has only been around since the early 1980s. When Indiana Jones was searching for the Lost Ark, employees were just beginning to contribute to their own retirement savings instead of relying on employer-run pension plans. Widespread adoption took a few years, so we’re just now starting to see a generation of hard-working Americans who were in charge of their own retirement throughout their entire career. I call these individuals Generation 401(k).
Bull markets in the ‘80s and ‘90s gave a lot of people confidence that 401(k)s were a much better way to save, but then a couple of recessions in the 2000s made everyone take a closer look at the pros and cons of self-directed retirement savings. In reality, 401(k)s were a way for employers to cut costs and worry less about having to make pension payments in the future. For employees, being in control of one’s own retirement seemed like a great opportunity; but it turns out it was more of a huge responsibility than anything else.
Before 401(k)s, many employees worked hard and didn’t think about how much they needed to save to create an income stream during retirement because their pension would take care of it. The pension wasn’t optional—it was automatic—and the employer was on the hook if anything bad happened in the stock market. Then, all of a sudden, the 401(k) came along, and employees had to choose how much to save, figure out where to save it, and then be able to stomach the ups and downs of the economic roller coaster. As a result, there is a whole generation of soon-to-be-retirees who are just now realizing they don’t have enough saved to enjoy life after work.
Millennials aren’t Generation 401(k). For the most part, it’s the parents of millennials who got stuck making self-directed investment decisions but lacked guidance and education on how to do it. It’s not their fault. The parents of Generation 401(k) weren’t able to teach their children how to invest wisely because it was never something they had to worry about. The result was inevitable: When it comes to preparing for retirement, trying to figure it out along the way isn’t the best path to achieve a stress-free life after work.
Where does this leave us today? For many in Generation 401(k), it’s catch-up time. Quite literally. In 2001, laws changed that allowed individuals to put more into their 401(k), including a new rule that allowed employees 50 or older to save more than their younger colleagues. These extra contributions for those over 50 are called “catch-up” contributions. This means that the final 10–15 years before retirement is a crucial time for saving as much as possible. In other words: It’s pedal to the metal time for saving.
For the younger generations, millennials and Gen Z, financial resources and education have caught up to the times. Young adults in their 20s and 30s know that achieving financial independence is their responsibility. The internet has made finding planning tools and investment knowledge available at the touch of a button or a voice command (“Hey Siri, how do I save for retirement?”). Preparing for early retirement has even sparked a revolution in how we perceive life after work. The “Financial Independence, Retire Early” (F.I.R.E.) movement has an almost cult-like following. The principles at the core of F.I.R.E. are nothing new, but the delivery has entered the 21st century by embracing technology and social media.
There is one common thread between Generation 401(k) and the younger generations. Whether retirement is 5 years away or 30 years away, it’s not going to happen the way you want it to happen without a plan. People who are planning to retire can do it alone, or they can choose to work with a professional. In these times of information overload, the allure of the do-it-yourself method has created paralysis-by-analysis for many. There are so many different moving parts to putting together a well-thought-out retirement plan that many people start down the path only to end up frustrated and rudderless before actually doing anything.
If you find yourself worried about having enough when you retire and you don’t have time or energy to dedicate to creating a financial plan, then you should hire a professional who can help you. Also, it’s not enough just to create a plan. You need to work with someone who will ensure that you implement your plan. Hoping you’ll be able to enjoy life after work is a stressful way to go through life. Knowing you have a solid plan in place to achieve your financial goals can give you peace of mind. How do you want to retire? Hoping it’ll all work out? Or knowing you can be financially independent?
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