Empty 401(k) accounts, student debt, unaffordable rent: Young workers will really need Social Security
Barista Trinity Rucker, of Providence, R.I., makes a coffee drink at Blue State Coffee, in Providence. Between soul-crushing rents and debt-sentence student loans, young workers like her can only dream about saving for retirement. | Steven Senne / AP

“The most important advice about saving for retirement is this,” the New York Times’ retirement savings guide begins: “Start now.”

If young Americans had a nickel for every time they got that advice, well… they wouldn’t have to worry about retirement. But many young workers are finding it impossible to put aside even a fraction of their paychecks.

Why? Skyrocketing apartment costs are one factor. With a down payment for a home increasingly out of reach, most young people rent—and rents have never been higher than in recent years.

Americans aged 18 to 29 are also twice as likely as any other adults to shoulder student debt, according to the Education Data Initiative. The end of the pandemic moratorium on student debt payments this fall will be crushing, leaving young people with even less disposable income to set aside for their retirement.

Younger workers are also heavily represented in low-wage jobs. In 2020, those under age 25 made up less than 20% of hourly paid workers but 48% of those earning the federal minimum wage or less.

Even if low-wage workers have a 401(k) retirement plan, they often cannot afford to take advantage of this benefit.

A joint report by the Institute for Policy Studies and Jobs with Justice examined the retirement divide within some of the country’s leading low-wage employers. At Walmart, for example, 46% of employees in the retailer’s 401(k) plan have zero balances. By contrast, the CEO has $169 million in a special retirement account set up just for top executives.

The report found similar divides at Chipotle, Hyatt, Home Depot, McDonald’s, Tyson Foods, Target, Petco, and other companies. These firms’ CEOs are all set to receive more in monthly retirement checks than their typical workers make in a year. Meanwhile, at least a third of their employees haven’t been able to put any money into their 401(k) plans.

Young Americans also appear to be less likely to save for their “golden years” because more and more of them are having a hard time envisioning a livable future.

According to Intuit, almost three in four young people say the current economic climate makes them hesitant to set up long-term goals. And climate change, of course, has contributed to the pessimism.

To give young Americans a chance of living to see dignified retirements, we need to tackle the short and long-term obstacles to saving: Let’s raise the minimum wage, strengthen labor rights, guarantee housing and health care, and fight climate change.

We also need to strengthen Social Security. Protecting and expanding this public pillar of our national retirement system will be critical for those unable to build big enough nest eggs on their own.

How can we pay for that? Right now, CEOs and other rich Americans stop contributing to the Social Security fund early in the year after they hit the wage cap on payroll taxes—which is just $160,200. Even if they make billions, they pay nothing into Social Security on income past that amount.

Most working people, on the other hand, pay into this fund all year—on every penny they earn.

We could shore up Social Security simply by requiring high earners to pay the same share of their total income into the system as ordinary workers. And we should end those special tax privileges for CEO retirement accounts to support a secure retirement system for everyone.

Several organizations are lobbying to expand Social Security and pushing back against Republican efforts to shrink these vital benefits. But they are mostly groups representing older Americans—not the young people with the biggest long-term stake in a retirement security system for all.

That should change.

Institute for Policy Studies

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Bella DeVaan
Bella DeVaan

Bella DeVaan is a Program Associate at the Institute for Policy Studies and a co-editor of Inequality.org.