As they have for decades, Americans are having an increasingly difficult time preparing for retirement.
As numerous studies have shown, the American workforce, now neatly divided into Gen Xers, Millennials and Baby Boomers, all say they cannot save enough for retirement. Workers are burdened with student debt, home repairs, credit card debt, monthly bills, paying for their child’s education.
All these financial burdens also exist at the same time Democratic presidential candidates are offering a variety of financial solutions to these exact problems. While the solutions vary widely in terms of their scope, political feasibility and costs, they all directly address the financial concerns expressed by American workers.
So, this brings us to a major disconnect between these potential financial solutions and the position of plan sponsors, financial planners and benefits administrators: Why aren’t possible political solutions to serious financial problems being addressed by plan sponsors?
Politics has a role in the workplace, especially when it can solve the sources of employee financial stress.
This disconnect raises the important question about why people involved in benefits administration and retirement planning are avoiding discussions about how potential political programs can benefit employees?
Why the disconnect?
Is it because of departmental restrictions? The tired myth that corporations cannot allow politics in the workplace? Or, those political issues are too complicated to discuss?
All these probably play a role, but my bet is that plan sponsors and many employee benefits departments hide behind the myth that politics does not belong in the workplace.
But this myth exists alongside the fact that corporations regularly make large political action committee (PAC) contributions to enact favorable laws and regulations that enhance business operations and profits. Simultaneously, many PAC contributions also work against solving the same financial complaints voiced by their workers.
This disconnect is more glaring since plan sponsors and their benefits departments are spending large sums on financial literacy and financial wellness programs that combine benefits offerings, such as physical, psychological and work-life balance programs, in addition to medical and other benefits.
In some workplaces, financial wellness programs address HSAs, employee discount programs, tuition reimbursement, financial planning sessions, credit management, mortgages, and personalized financial counseling. According to Sue Walton, senior vice president, and a Defined Contribution Strategist at the Capital Group, “health and wellness benefits are converging” into a new form of “benefits ecosystem.” But these well-meaning “benefits ecosystem” programs only work within definite, self-imposed boundaries.
Semantics aside, plan sponsors are myopic if they think any “benefits ecosystem” will solve employee financial problems if they do not have a distinct political education component. This also means financial literacy programs could be vastly improved when combined with political literacy programs. When employees understand how government works, they will better understand the political issues facing society and how to be critical thinkers. This should make for better citizens and better employees.
At a recent benefits industry conference, I asked one speaker on the financial wellness panel why the threats to cut Social Security were never mentioned in their presentation. She said the panelists assumed Social Security would always be there. When I told her that a few Republican presidents had already said they wanted to curtail or replace this program, she looked surprised. This speaker had relied on a political assumption, not a financial one.
This is also an example of the limitations of existing financial wellness programs. If corporations want to be holistic and address work-life balances, they must include a political education component to address financial stress. The potential political solutions presented in the workplace do not have to be endorsed, but they can be objectively presented and compared as to their financial impact on the average family.
Politics has a role in the workplace, especially in employee benefits departments that want to be relevant to employee needs. Financial wellness programs and counseling can help employees understand the source of their financial stress and often manipulate the same cost and revenue factors, but never introduce new information.
Political literacy, combined with financial literacy programs, can solve the persistent financial stress that now affects three generations of workers. Maybe it’s time to try a new workplace approach.