Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Rest of the Story

Last week, AARP published a report on how economic worries are impacting Americans.

The report, aptly titled “The Economic Slowdown’s Impact on Middle-Aged and Older Americans", "revealed” what seems obvious to most—that a large majority of Americans think the economy is in trouble (even though most respondents’ personal lives seem largely unaffected) and that, as a result, some are making adjustments in lifestyle (things like vacations and eating out), saving, investing, and retirement plans.

In fact, the headlines—including ours—tended to focus on the fact that more than one out of four (27%) workers age 45-64 say they postponed plans to retire, and nearly as many reported they are prematurely taking money out of their 401(k)s and other investments (see “Delayed Retirement, Early Withdrawals Result from Economic Downturn”). Another interesting data point was that 27% said that recent stock market losses had led them to start putting less in their retirement accounts.

That anyone is cutting back on savings is disconcerting, of course, since, by and large, people seem not to be saving enough as it is. But, “buried” in the survey data was another interesting data point: Nearly as many—25%—said that because of losses (or despite them) in the stock market, they were actually putting MORE of their income in retirement accounts.

The real point in all of this, of course, may be that—while they are concerned about the economy (though even in this survey, most Americans haven’t been impacted directly)—most haven’t made any significant changes to their retirement preparation habits. According to the poll, 77% haven’t changed their minds about retirement timing; nearly half were saving exactly the same amount before the market turmoil as now. In fact, if you take that latter group, and add in the group that has stepped up their savings, the headline could—and perhaps should—have been “Americans Cut Back on Eating Out—But Still Saving.”

As noted above, that wasn’t the focus of the coverage—not even ours. Discerning motivations is a tricky business, particularly when those motivations are as varied as the individuals covering these surveys (or the editors looking over their shoulders). It is, perhaps, natural to assume that a slowing economy would inexorably lead to a reduction in savings—and, in fairness, those cutbacks were highlighted in the press release that accompanied the survey’s release. And, lest we forget, there was absolutely nothing misleading in acknowledging the reality that a significant minority had, in fact, cut back on their retirement savings.

There’s an old journalistic maxim that says “if it bleeds, it leads.” It’s the reason why the teaser for the nightly news is about murder, a horrific fire, or a natural disaster—and you can’t just blame that on the news producers. They may not be giving us what we “want” when they do so—but they are, in fact, giving us what we tune in to hear about. Crudely put, it’s the kind of thing that sells papers (or Web clicks).

Still, we owe it to ourselves—and those we support—to look for “the rest of the story.”

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

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