How’s Your 401(k) Doing?

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The Great Recession took a big toll on 401(k) retirement plans. The chart below, from the Employee Benefit Research Institute, shows the general volatility of 401(k) accounts: they go up smartly during booms (1996-99, 2002-07) and plummet during busts (2000-02, 2007-08). The average account took a 30 percent hit when the housing bubble burst in 2008.

In general, average 401(k) account balances have grown fairly steadily over the past two decades. But 401(k)s have two big problems. The first is volatility. If you were 55 when the Great Recession hit, you’ve made up most of the losses from 2008 and your account balance is probably close to where it was in the mid-aughts. But if you turned 65 in 2008 and were planning to retire that year, you were screwed.

Second, account balances just aren’t very big. The chart below understates retirement readiness since it shows averages for all workers. The actual median account balance for workers in their sixties is in the neighborhood of $50,000 or so. But even that isn’t much: it provides an annual annuity of only a few thousand dollars. That’s nice to have, but it’s hardly a windfall.

Of course, one other thing to keep in mind is that less than half the population has a pension of any kind, and that’s always been true. Over the past three decades, defined-contribution plans like 401(k)s have grown while defined-benefit plans have mostly disappeared. But over that entire period, less than half of all private sector workers have had either kind of pension. For the rest, the big debate over pensions is strictly academic. They rely almost exclusively on Social Security and always have.

This is just one part of the retirement puzzle, of course. More on the bigger picture tomorrow.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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