PSNC 2015: Solving the Retirement Crisis

How willing are plan sponsors to embrace change and innovation to fend off the retirement savings crisis?

The world as we know it ends in 2030. According to Brock Johnson, president of retirement solutions for Morningstar Inc., this is when the Baby Boomers will be aging, Generation X will be starting to retire, and Social Security will be depleted. What’s more, he said, the U.S. doesn’t seem to be able to revamp its retirement system in a meaningful way to cut off these challenges.

Presenting at the 2015 PLANSPONSOR National Conference in Chicago, Johnson explained that there is no “silver bullet” system that works for everyone. Even if political leaders tried harder to change the system from the top down, doing so would require significant resources and compromise—two commodities in short supply in Washington. The good news, he said, is that our current retirement system is a “rock solid foundation” for plan sponsors to build on.

While he worries about the long-term, Johnson outlined five nearer-term steps to help avert the crisis: Align plan design with core objectives, bolster savings, personalize plans and communications, redefine success metrics, and re-brand the value of retirement. Further, sponsors should limit loans and improve portability to ensure that participants’ accounts grow consistently across their careers.

The retirement crisis is a savings crisis, Johnson said, and participants need to be able to move their focus from primary needs such as food and housing on to secondary needs—savings and investments. The first thing for individuals to do, he said, is to start an emergency savings fund, then reduce debt and improve budgeting. As many as half of American workers do not budget their money or know how to prioritize different savings goals, he noted.

NEXT: Making a difference. 

One positive trend, Johnson said, is that the next generation of savers appears to be getting on track. He suggested Millennials and early career workers should look outside the box for innovative solutions. There are a slew of applications (apps) that can help participants build a budget, monitor their spending patterns, and even pull small amounts of money into a separate account to make saving as effortless as possible. In the plan, gaming techniques and rewards can drive better behavior, too.

“Arm our children with ‘life math’ skills,” he suggested. Schools can adopt programs that teach students how to buy a car or a house, how to invest and save, and give them the building blocks of a financially responsible future.

The retirement industry needs to develop a targeted public service announcement to incite change. Similar to how national campaigns changed the public attitude about wearing seatbelts and not littering, he believes that saving for the future can become the kind of automatic action that all Americans are expected to take. From the day that participants enter the work force, he said, they should be planning for the day they will leave it. “Hammer home the virtues of saving for retirement.”

Bring debt into the conversation, too, he said. Americans should strive to pay down all of their debts—mortgages and credit cards alike—before entering retirement. That way, they will only need their savings to cover day-to-day expenses.

Sponsors and participants need to have the right long-term objective in mind and measure their progress against that, Johnson said. Going after the wrong goal and using the wrong metrics will only lead to individuals taking the wrong action steps.

NEXT: Getting the word out. 

It is important that sponsors and service providers craft the right message to reach the right person at the right time using the right delivery channel, Johnson said. The best way to do this is by segmenting the population, by age, gender, tenure, debt levels and whatever other variables are available and might affect saving and spending behaviors.

Try out different messaging techniques to see what reaches participants most effectively, he suggested. His firm sent out one email on different days and at different times, to see which was clicked on the most frequently. Sunday evening, at 5:00 p.m., got a 7.2%, while the same content at 8:00 a.m. on a Friday saw a 6.4% click rate.

On the participant website, removing the landing page before the enrollment page lead to a 36% increase in engagement. The phrase” “Get my account” led to a 42% increase in click-throughs over “Start today.”

Using an incentive—say, a raffle for a free iPad—can motivate participants to adopt a desired behavior, as can a deadline. He gave the example of the first 100 entrees being eligible, or all of those who signed up by a certain time.