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Generations of workers have largely relied on their employers to take care of their financial needs after they retire. But in recent years, companies have stepped down from their responsibility for ensuring that you have a comfortable retirement -- and now more than ever, it's up to you to make sure you build the financial resources you need to cover all of your living expenses after you stop working.
A brief history of worker retirement
Decades ago, workers counted on three sources of retirement income. From the government, Social Security ensured a base level of subsistence income. Monthly payments from employer pensions, which were largely based on a worker's lifetime salary history, helped bring retirement income toward levels that workers became accustomed to during their careers. And finally, whatever retirement savings workers accumulated on their own provided a supplemental source of funds for unexpected problems or one-time splurges.
Over the years, though, the challenges involved in meeting pension obligations have pushed employers to make changes to the benefits they offer their workers. Employers have largely moved away from defined benefit plans, in which they bear the risk of coming up with investment returns sufficient to cover pension costs. Instead, they've supported the use of defined contribution plans such as 401(k)s, in which workers decide how much to save and employers may choose to make profit-sharing or employer matching contributions.
For a while, companies at least chose to treat their reduced retirement-savings responsibility as an obligation. But during the financial crisis, many companies scaled back or completely eliminated the matching contributions they made toward workers' retirement plan accounts. In other words, the transition to a retirement savings system that's entirely dependent on the worker's own savings decisions was complete.
The new normal
Since the recovery, some companies have started back on the road to restoring matching contributions. But in many cases, the restored benefits are more limited than they were before they were suspended in the first place. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal cites these examples:
- United Parcel Service (NYSE: UPS ) had a 100% match of up to 3% of pay before suspending the match in 2009. The company's current match is now 50% on a maximum of 5% -- cutting the maximum amount for which UPS could be on the hook by half a percentage point. In contrast, rival FedEx (NYSE: FDX ) initially restored just half its 401(k) match last year but then increased the match back to its original amount for 2011.
- MGM Resorts (NYSE: MGM ) went even further, eliminating a 100% match of up to 6% of pay for two years. When the match came back, MGM not only cut it to 50%, but imposed a $500 maximum total amount regardless of salary.
Other companies have taken similar measures. Last year, Morningstar chose to reinstate its match at half of its previous level. In 2009, Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX ) matched 401(k) employee contributions as expected but reserved the right to approve matches on a year-by-year basis.
Of course, not every company has left its workers in limbo. Ford (NYSE: F ) and General Motors (NYSE: GM ) chose to reinstate their matches in full. JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) even decided to give workers an additional one-time $500 deposit to partially make up for matching cuts in 2009.
The damage is done
The problem for workers is that with their 401(k) plan investments already vulnerable to economic downturns, the last thing they need is the further threat that their matching contributions will disappear when their employer's financial health deteriorates. Yet having already cut those contributions in times of need, companies won't hesitate to do so in the future.
As unfortunate as it is, the days when you could rely on your employer to take care of your retirement needs are gone. That doesn't leave you helpless, as you can still use your 401(k) to save your own money. But it leaves you with almost sole responsibility to make sure you have enough to enjoy your golden years.
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