Retirement expert: “Most middle-class Americans will become poor or near-poor retirees”

According to economist Teresa Ghilarducci, one of the nation’s leading experts on retirement policy, “(i)t looks like most middle-class Americans will become poor or near-poor retirees,” adding that “(t)he baby boomers will be the first generation that will do worse in retirement than their parents.”

Ghilarducci’s comments appear in The Week, a weekly news magazine, as part of an informative piece (“The not-so-golden years,” April 27 edition) spotlighting a largely neglected Boomer retirement savings crisis that has grave implications for America’s social and economic well-being.

401(k)s vs. pensions

While the economic meltdown is one reason for this crisis, the more systemic cause is the disappearance of the traditional pension plan. The Week reports that from 1980 to 2006, the percentage of private-sector workers with employer-funded pension plans dropped from 60 percent to 10 percent. The 401(k) plan — voluntary and largely employee-funded — would replace the pension as the primary retirement savings vehicle.

Unfortunately, most workers have not built 401(k) accounts sufficient to fund a comfortable retirement; the average 401(k) balance “is just over $60,000,” according to The Week. Even worse, “(m)ore than half of U.S. workers have no retirement plan at all.” Social Security payments “averaging $14,780 a year for individuals and $22,000 for couples” won’t bridge the gaps.

Consequently, it appears that many Boomers will find themselves working much later into their lives, seeking cheaper housing, and cutting back sharply on spending.

Policy options

From a policy standpoint, there are no easy choices. Below are two possibilities; the first is something of a pipe dream for now, the second is more politically viable.

Public pensions for all?

In an earlier New York Times op-ed piece in response to cutbacks in New York State’s pension plan for public workers, Ghilarducci calls upon the states to create public pension plans for all workers:

Rather than curtailing public and private pensions, New York and other states could save millions of workers from impending poverty by creating public pensions for everyone.

While the recession bears some blame for the looming retirement crisis, experts agree that the primary cause is more fundamental: Most workers do not have retirement accounts at work.

Shoring up Social Security

At the very least, we need to ensure the viability of Social Security for generations to come. The anticipated shortfalls in the Social Security fund can be addressed by raising the current cap on payroll taxes that fund the system.

Currently workers pay a flat 6.2 percent in payroll taxes, but that tax caps out on the first $106,800 of income. Eliminating or raising the cap would go a long way toward keeping the Social Security fund in decent shape in terms of paying out promised benefits.

The other option for Social Security is means testing, which would reduce or eliminate benefits for the most economically fortunate. The politics of this possibility will certainly push the “class warfare” buttons, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see proposals enter the picture as the crisis becomes more evident.

Generations at war?

In addition, there’s a potential political war looming in the not-so-far distance, one between the Boomers now facing a bleak retirement and younger generations trying to get their starts in life.

It is fair, for example, to ask people entering the workforce and starting a career to bail out their elders, while facing a brutal job market and carrying enormous amounts of student debt? As I wrote in this short article two years ago, generational battles over taxation and public spending may become ugly and divisive.

No quick fixes

Also, this won’t be solved by older Boomers suddenly deciding to save more, even assuming they are in a position to do so. Retirement funds are built by accruing returns on principal over time, and five or even ten years isn’t a sufficient period to do so, especially at a time of declining interest rates.

In addition to the individual burdens, the economic ripple effects of so many Boomers going into spending lock-down mode will be significant. What happens when a generation that built an economy based on credit and consumption suddenly puts on the brakes by sheer necessity? We may be about a decade away from finding out.

Folks, it’s not a pretty picture, but I won’t apologize for sounding like a broken record about it in the pages of this blog. It’s a crisis we’d better face earlier than later.


The full print version of The Week article is not available online, but a shorter version along with other pieces on the retirement crisis can be accessed here.

For more articles from this blog related to retirement readiness, Social Security, public pensions, and the economy, go here.

Meetings upon meetings: The administrative mindset in academe

In this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, “Ms. Mentor” Emily Toth (the Emily Post of academe) opines on meetings:

Meetings can chew up your life, eviscerate the blocks of time you need for writing and thinking, and mentor you into oblivion.

They can be good if they’re focused, and the best ones can build community….

But good meetings are rare.

Toth nails a lot of the standard-brand personality mixes that can make academic meetings so exasperating. But she misses an opportunity to tie the proliferation of meetings to more fundamental shifts in academic culture.

It is a well-documented trend that American colleges and universities increasingly are dominated by an “administrative class” that has been growing by leaps and bounds, even at schools that have cut, or sharply slowed the growth of, their full-time faculties.

The addition of administrators is not, per se, a bad thing, especially when specific programs and initiatives require staffing and direction. However, the accompanying power shifts have gone too far in many institutions, leading to a diminution of faculty voice, along with soaring budgets that often are paid for by students via higher tuition.

The administrative mindset

In a mundane yet significant sense, the addition of administrators usually means more meetings. After all, calling meetings and creating committees help to justify one’s position and provide ways to keep busy. Such efforts frequently generate endless exchanges of e-mails & memos and painful exercises in group “wordsmithing.”

All too often, these activities culminate in tepid reports or wholly predictable recommendations that are less than the sum of their parts. At times, the consequences are worse, with “groupthink” producing ideas that are downright batty or ill-informed.

Impact on faculty

Perhaps there’s a case for all these meetings to be a chief activity for administrators, but they shouldn’t be for faculty. Nevertheless, if anecdotal evidence is accurate, this is a growing occurrence on many college campuses.

When faculty are drawn into these spider webs of chatter, they often experience a huge drain on time and emotional energy, both of which are premium ingredients for successful teaching, scholarship, and (real) service. It means that the most important aspects of faculty work sometimes are lost amidst a sea of meetings and committee assignments, usually at the behest of senior administrators.

Think about it

For full-time faculty who might be reading this, here’s the question: Are there weeks during a typical semester when you spend more time in meetings with other faculty and administrators than in classes and meetings with students? If so, then there’s a good possibility that the administrative mindset has taken over your institution.


Related post

“Strategic planning”: All too often, a time-sucking bridge to nowhere (2011)

“Radical middle” views of law, psychology, and the legal profession

Mark Satin is a noted political writer and lawyer, a one-time 60s activist whose worldview now resides in what he calls the “radical middle.” Mark’s Radical Middle newsletter (1999-2009) and book (2004) (pictured above) have been informed by perspectives and positions such as such as these:

  • One-world citizenship.  A commitment to overarching human values and to a cosmopolitan identity as world citizens.
  • Business and law.  A recognition that what’s going on in certain boardrooms and law offices today may be more important — and more promising — than what’s going on in the traditional political arena.
  • Consciousness.  A recognition that values, virtues, attitudes, religion, and culture may have more to do with individual happiness — and social progress — than economic growth.
  • One-world compassion.  A refusal to accept that the well-being of people in Rumania or Nigeria or Malaysia is any less important than the well-being of people in Arizona.
  • Ambition, achievement and service.  In the Sixties it was a badge of honor to drop out.  The strategy backfired.  Today most socially committed young people are rushing to become doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, social workers, academics, and that is — or can be — a good thing.

Relevant articles

Here are six of Mark’s extended newsletter commentaries on topics especially relevant to this blog:

Personal side

Some 20 years ago, when I was a young instructor in the first-year Lawyering Skills program at New York University, Mark’s name popped up on my class list. I had been a subscriber to his previous newsletter, New Options, and soon would learn that he closed it down and decided to pursue a law degree.

We became friends and stayed in touch after I moved to Boston to accept a tenure-track appointment at Suffolk University Law School. Eventually I would join the board of the non-profit organization he established to host the Radical Middle newsletter. After a few years, we had a friendly parting of the ways when I felt that my political views were further left to the middle ground he was defining.

Fast forward to today: Although I identify myself as a liberal, Mark’s ideas have had a strong impact on me, to the point where I’m as comfortable in his defined radical middle as I am in the heart of mainstream liberalism. I am in agreement with him more often than not, and in any event I respect the voice he brings to our political and social discourse. Mark is working on a memoir these days, and I look forward to its publication.

“Work & Well-Being 2012” in Chicago: June 28

The American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program will be hosting “Work & Well-Being 2012,” a one-day conference in Chicago, on June 28. Here’s a preview of the topics that will be explored:

High-impact health promotion and wellness efforts … Workplace flexibility as a business strategy … Incentives and recognition … Preventing and addressing bullying and other counterproductive workplace behaviors … Lessons learned from award-winning companies … and more.

I’ll be presenting at the conference. Here are the featured speakers to date:

  • Michael P. Leiter, PhD – Director of the Centre for Organizational Research & Development at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. With more than two decades of research on organizational behavior, Dr. Leiter is an internationally known expert on work engagement, burnout and civility in the workplace.
  • David Yamada, JD – Professor of Law and Director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. An internationally recognized authority on the legal aspects of workplace bullying and author of model anti-bullying legislation that has become the template for law reform efforts across the country.
  • Bey-Ling Sha, PhD, APR – Associate Professor in the School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University. Dr. Sha is an award-winning public relations researcher, teacher and practitioner. Her research areas include cultural identity, international public relations, activism and gender.
  • John Randolph, PhD, ABPP – Executive coach, consultant and board-certified clinical neuropsychologist in private practice in Lebanon, NH. A nationally recognized speaker on topics such as executive functioning, positive neuropsychology and leadership development.
  • David W. Ballard, PsyD, MBA – Assistant Executive Director for Marketing and Business Development at the American Psychological Association, head of APA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program.
  • Matthew J. Grawitch, PhD – Chair of the Organizational Studies Program in the School for Professional Studies at Saint Louis University, an expert on healthy workplace practices.
  • Larissa Barber, PhD – Assistant Professor of Psychology, Northern Illinois University, an expert on workplace flexibility and work-home boundary management, as well as work stress and health behaviors.

It promises to be an interesting and engaging program. For more information, go here.

Workplace bullying and the ombudsman

On Monday I had the privilege of delivering a keynote address to open the annual conference of the International Ombudsman Association (IOA), held in Houston, Texas.

For readers unfamiliar with this position, an organizational ombudsman is a senior-level administrator who is granted an independent, neutral role to facilitate the resolution of interpersonal disputes and to engage in institutional troubleshooting. IOA’s membership is a mix of ombuds from colleges and universities (its largest group), government, and private industry, as well as independent consultants. 

The speaking invitation gave me a chance to address and interact with several hundred attendees about the challenges posed by workplace bullying. Based on the responses, clearly these issues present themselves frequently in their practices. My own remarks, a mix of “workplace bullying 101” and observations & advice specific to ombuds, were followed by a lively and informed Q&A session.

In addition, at least two other programs at the conference (which continues through Wednesday) are devoted to workplace bullying, showing once again how this topic is entering the mainstream of contemporary employment relations.


I’d like to thank the IOA and fellow attendees for this invitation and for their warm introduction to the organization. I regret that I was unable to stay for the entire conference, because I so enjoyed the day I was able to spend with them. Special thanks to ombuds Lisa Witzler, conference co-chair and my primary IOA liaison, for her guidance in preparing a talk that would be useful to IOA members.

Extended outline of keynote address

Conference attendees and others can access an extended outline of my keynote address, “Responding to Workplace Bullying: The Role of the Ombudsman,” here.

On organizational cultures

During the Q&A, I recommended a piece by Drs. Linda Hartling and Elizabeth Sparks on organizational cultures. You can access a past blog post about it here, which includes a link to ordering the article.

2010 IOA journal issue

The IOA’s journal devoted an excellent package of articles to bullying behaviors in its 2010 issue, which can be accessed here.

Workplace bullying and ethical leadership

Especially for IOA members who may be visiting this blog, my 2008 article, “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership,” may be of interest. It can be accessed here.

Donna Hicks on dignity

Donna Hicks is an international affairs professor at Harvard and author of Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflict (2011). I thought I’d share this short passage from her Introduction (p.4):

Dignity is a birthright. We have little trouble seeing this when a child is born; there is no question about children’s value and worth. If only we could hold onto this truth about human beings as they grow into adults, if only we could continue to feel their value, then it would be so much easier to treat them well and keep them safe from harm. Treating others with dignity, then, becomes the baseline for our interactions.

Applying this to the workplace

What if treating employees with dignity became “the baseline for our interactions” at work? How much would the experience of work improve, leading to a happier, healthier, more productive, and more loyal workforce?

In the U.S., we’re still at a point where urging the embrace of human dignity by our systems of employment relations may get you branded as a left-wing idealist who doesn’t understand the market needs and competitive values of the modern workplace.

But what if we elevated human dignity to its proper role in society, including making it the framing concept for how we govern the workplace?

At the very least, what harm can it do to imagine the possibilities?


Hicks invokes my friend and colleague Evelin Lindner, founder of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies Network, which I have mentioned many times on this blog.

I explore some of the legal & policy issues related to dignity at work in “Human Dignity and American Employment Law,” University of Richmond Law Review (2009), freely downloadable here.

Our avocations and hobbies: The third pillar of work-life balance?

All too often, we think of work-life balance as (1) work and (2) everything else. That “everything else” includes family and friends, perhaps some socializing or watching television, and attending to necessary chores. (I hasten to add that for many stay-at-home parents, work and everything else may be one in the same!)

Let me add a third pillar to our model, that of avocations and hobbies, which can be sources of considerable satisfaction, especially when work and home bring more stress than balance.


Two summers ago, I wrote in praise of avocations:

I am beginning to believe that our avocations will save us, personally in terms of enriching our lives, and publicly in terms of contributing to the greater community.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines an avocation as “a subordinate occupation pursued in addition to one’s vocation especially for enjoyment.”  That’s a good start, but I want to add a few other qualities that separate avocation from a pure hobby, such as a sense of accomplishment and contribution to the broader community.

Hobbies, too

Let me add similar sentiments for a good hobby, which the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines as “a pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation.”

A hobby may not result in a tangible something along the lines of many avocations (books, music, art, etc.), and it typically does not break even in terms of monies spent. Nevertheless, it can be a tremendous source of personal satisfaction and a way to build community.

What Google tells us

If my Google searches are any indication (using “work-life balance,” “hobby,” and “avocation”), we link hobbies with the concept of work-life balance much more than we do avocations.

The commentary on work-life balance regards hobbies as healthy release valves for the stressors of work and life. I agree; they allow us to lose ourselves in an enjoyable pastime.

Release valve vs. flow

University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (1997) (pp. 28-29), urges us to seek states of flow in our lives, those experiences when “heart, will, and mind are on the same page.”  In these moments, “what we feel, what we wish, and what we think are in harmony.”

This is where many avocations enter the picture. They allow people to pursue a meaningful activity resulting in that elusive state of flow — one that may elude them in their working lives. Avocations typically are more than release valves from life’s pressures; rather, they offer our lives a different dimension.

On this blog, I know that I talk a lot about improving work and creating better workplaces. But the reality is that for many, work remains an means to an end, rather than an end in itself. For those who harbor unrealized passions, the avocational route may provide deep satisfaction.

Why this stuff is important

I believe these third places in our lives are going to become ever more significant. They will provide us with outlets for pent-up creativity, some of which we can share with others. They will allow to do, collect, sort, feature, and make things that bring us satisfaction.  In sum, they will help to give our lives meaning.


Related posts

How’s this for an epitaph? “She lived a balance life” (2011)

Will our avocations save us? (2010)

When “heart, will, and mind are on the same page” (2010)

Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010)

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