“Many American workers today are feeling stressed about retirement and are not taking steps to prepare for it.” That’s one of the major findings of the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) 2017 Retirement Confidence Survey. You might be thinking that if someone feels deep anxiety about saving for the future, the best course of action would be to stop freaking out about it and just do something.
Beyond having to cope with the reality of tight family budgets or the overhang of debt, there may be something deeper at work. I recently was listening to an NPR “Hidden Brain” podcast that partially explained why many Americans have such a difficult time saving for retirement: A recent episode discussed the phenomenon of scarcity, and the impacts that researchers Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir have found it has on those struggling to manage with less than they need. (They have co-authored a book, “Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives,” on the topic.)
The result of their studies may resonate with some of you. When you are in the scarcity mode, you obsess about what is lacking and find yourself immobilized by the downward plunge into a rabbit hole. Instead of determining how to get out of the hole, your mind digs the hole even deeper and keeps you there.
After learning about the effects of scarcity, I began to think that the concept might help to explain some of the EBRI survey results. Imagine that if you are not saving for retirement, your brain obsessively focuses on that very fact. With all of that energy directed toward what you are not doing, there’s no room for anything else and you become frozen.
Perhaps that’s why EBRI found that 30 percent of workers report that they feel mentally or emotionally stressed about preparing for retirement. In addition, another 30 percent say that they worry about their personal finances while at work. “Half of these workers believe they would be more productive at work if they didn’t spend time worrying.”
How can we help those who are feeling this kind of debilitating anxiety? As previous EBRI confidence surveys have found, those who have a retirement plan, regardless of type, feel less stressed about retirement preparations and are more likely to have started saving for retirement. About three-quarters of employed workers have access to an employer-based retirement plan, and 83 percent of eligible employees say they contribute money to that plan.
Of course, just providing access to a retirement plan will not solve the problem. There has to be a concerted effort to help those who can to scrounge up just a little bit more and direct it toward the long-term goal of retirement. Perhaps this will have to take the form of gentle nudging or reminding. There is evidence that automatically enrolling workers into retirement plans leads to increased participation rates. And automatically escalating contribution rates by small increments can help participants put more money to work. If your employer does not offer a retirement plan, you can implement these strategies yourself. Where possible, automate your saving and investment systems, which may lead to better outcomes.
Finally, many of you write me and ask how to start. I know that it is daunting, but like so many other difficult tasks, like diet and exercise, it’s easier to begin with a small goal. Instead of telling yourself that you need to accumulate hundreds of thousands of dollars by age 70, just try to save 1 percent to 3 percent of your earnings in a retirement account by the end of the year. Focus on establishing the habit and then slowly build on it.
Jill Schlesinger, a certified financial planner, is a CBS News business analyst. She welcomes emailed comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.