Are America's financial fortunes changing?

By Andy Stonehouse

If there’s one thing the retirement industry is good at, it’s surveys – on the retirement industry. Not that I’m complaining – they’re certainly a good source of insight on the trends in the business and the ways that consumers are (or are not) responding to changes in the American economic climate.

You just get a little overwhelmed at times, and occasionally confused as the results of one particular survey seem to contraindicate the next. A bit like the polls that you’ll see candidates rolling out as one of history’s most divisive political campaigns hits high gear in the coming months.

What we can agree on are some of the most basic facts, reiterated on a weekly basis in the surveys: state and corporate pensions are tremendously, drastically and fantastically underfunded and are receiving investment returns the worst I’ve seen since the days of my no-interest kiddie bank account.

Nobody seems to contest those figures, other than the exact depth and breadth of the problem.

But what about individual financial fortunes, minus the rhetoric from the politicians? Are people actually doing better on a personal financial basis, and are they getting to the point where they’ll be able to set some of their hard-earned cash aside for their retirement?

For that, I turn to Country Financial’s monthly Security Index study, one of a litany of pulse-taking benchmarks of individual financial well-being. And this month, things look pretty good: Those surveyed reported feeling pretty good about their fortunes, the first positive signs the company’s seen in an August survey in four years.

Their results echoed what we’ve also been hearing in several other recent surveys, the news that younger workers – the Millennials and their even-younger counterparts – are also feeling more confident about their own financial futures. Country’s stats say that 50 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds gave a thumbs-up on their financial security; other research from Fidelity says that the youngest of American workers are also the most motivated to start socking away their cash for retirement needs, as they recognize they’ll be, in all likelihood, generationally exempt from a full ride on Social Security. In that research, it was clear that almost 83 percent of Generation Y workers are taking part in their companies’ 401(k) offerings.

The negatives of other surveys, we can all pretty much take for granted: Boomers are mostly underprepared for their retirement and are starting to realize that they’ll probably be working (or will need to be working) to help pay their way through what could be a long, long span in their 70s, 80s and beyond. Pension systems will continue to flounder and corporations and big cities (especially those in California) will do their damnedest to try to shake off their long-term obligations, as those costs are killing them.

But if you’re lucky enough to be working, the slight uptick in collective economic fortunes might be a gentle reminder that this is a good time to start saving – and that’s a message you can also spread to your clients and your clients’ plan participants.

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