Boomers Sweat Retirement in the Age of Uncertainty, and Beyond

At a financial planning seminar, near-retirees gaze into a future where Social Security is under siege and defined-benefit pension plans are up in smoke

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The Science and Business branch of the New York Public Library is housed in the shell of the old B. Altman department store on the corner of 34th Street and Madison, a short dogleg from the Empire State Building and two blocks south of the palazzo that J.P. Morgan built. The library's own renovated interior mimics the offices of a financial services firm, right down to its corporate-style mix of wood and steel, an ample supply of Aeron chairs, and an air-conditioner set to meet the thermal needs of alpha males in business suits.

On a pleasant Thursday not long ago, the atrium was filled with the murmur of many sober conversations about money. (According to prominent signage, the atrium had been "created through the generous support of UBS," which was in the news for a $2.3 billion-loss by a trader gone rogue.) Photocopies affixed to various surfaces announced that today was Financial Planning Day, one of several financial literacy events the library hosts throughout the year.

The prospect of planning one's finances is likely to elicit feelings that veer from mild to moderate boredom in the most placid of times, but the upheaval of the last few years has made planning either wholly futile or wholly necessary, depending on whom you ask. (Jeffrey Goldberg's reaction to the financial crisis was to fire his broker and hope for the best, a process he detailed in The Atlantic a couple of years ago.)

The events scheduled for Financial Planning Day, which included classes on "Understanding your Social Security" and "Medicare Basics," all sounded sensible enough, though not without the occasional burst of exuberance: one of the seminars was called "Mortgages!" (needless to say, the exclamation point isn't mine). Three miles downtown, the Occupy Wall Street protests had entered their third week, but you wouldn't have known it from the itinerary for the day's events, which presented the financial system as a neutral realm that the ordinary American could navigate and even exploit.

The library's atrium was ringed by tables offering pamphlets and flyers from various agencies. Considering that nearly a third of retirees depend on Social Security as their main source of income, I wanted to talk to the woman at the Social Security table. She, however, did not want to talk to me. "Ah, you see, I'm not supposed to speak to the press," she said, declining to tell me what she did with the Administration. She handed me a piece of paper. "You can find all of the information you need right here." Her finger pointed to the top of the sheet, which instructed me to BOLDLY GO TO SOCIALSECURITY.GOV.

The Social Security Administration has adopted a Star Trek theme to promote its online resources, and I could see George Takei, aka Mr. Sulu, grinning from another pamphlet on the table. I thanked the woman and put the piece of paper in my bag, which already contained a DVD on "Deposit Insurance Coverage" from the FDIC (the DVD turned out to be as compelling as you might imagine) and a pack of playing cards from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, a self-regulating organization of investment banks whose name makes it sound like the government agency it isn't. The top card read, "We stacked this deck for you."

I suspected the gambling innuendo owed less to an ironic sensibility than to a certain obliviousness. Still, it turned out to be of a piece with the financial-planning advice being given in the seminars I attended, which emphasized that Americans could count on few guarantees for their income during retirement, if they could count on any guarantees at all. Social Security was under siege, defined-benefit pension plans were as elusive as unicorns: preparing for the future required "understanding your risk tolerance" and placing your bets accordingly.

"The greater the risk, the greater the reward. Also, the greater chance of losing money," said Kathleen Floyd from the Securities and Exchange Commission, speaking about the need to "Save and Invest Wisely."

And even avoiding risk invited its own risk. Keeping your nest egg in a bank account made you vulnerable to inflation. Putting it into a high-yield CD through a brokerage would be "betting on the solvency of the company behind it." Park it in an annuity, and "you're banking on the staying power of the insurance company."

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