EBRI, ASEC Cite Benefits in PBS Documentary

May 24, 2006 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - While acknowledging certain differences in approach with the points of emphasis in the recent Frontline documentary "Can You Afford to Retire", a leading pension expert still thinks Americans should watch - and learn.

Dallas Salisbury, president and chief executive officer of the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) and chairman of the American Savings Education Council (ASEC), said in a statement today that “While the Frontline special stressed points that I would not have chosen in some cases, and did not include others that I would have, it was a strong message to individuals to pay attention, have a retirement plan, watch fees, save a lot, beware of salesmen offering the next sure thing, and be cautious of anyone who says, ‘Trust me – I will take care of everything for you’.”

The program, which was previewed at a Washington, DC-based event co-sponsored by EBRI and AARP the day before it aired (May 16), began with the statement, “The baby boomer generation is headed for a shock as it hits retirement: many of them will be long on life expectancy but short on savings” (see PBS Documentary Says Boomers are in for a Surprise ). On Tuesday, a week after it aired, the Profit Sharing/401(k) Council of America (PSCA) issued a response to the program, telling workers that they should “disregard” the program’s conclusion. “Contrary to the program’s conclusion, we have not reached the “end of retirement,” PSCA said (see PSCA Says Workers Should Disregard FRONTLINE Conclusions ).

“The end message – ‘the end of retirement’ – might have been a bit strong,” acknowledged Salisbury in his statement;” but the Retirement Confidence Survey and other EBRI research makes it clear that millions of baby boomers and younger generations are living in a dream world thinking they can retire on what they now have, or on what they will have based upon the savings they are now doing.”

Citing viewer testing done by the EBRI, Salisbury noted that "Programs that get the best recall and have the most impact are either those with humor and a call to action or those that scare the pants off people with a call to action. Frontline correspondent Rick Smith and his team choose the later course, and our work would suggest that it was on the mark on most issues. It showed employers offering plans, working to educate their workers, putting in money, setting aside work time for seminars, and offering tools that could provide the right number for planning."

Salisbury also noted that the program "…showed a retiree who left work with a good nest egg but an out-of-balance personal situation; he still had a lot of debt and made investment and spending decisions that drove him back to work. This was not an employer failure but an individual failure."

United Focus?

The documentary devoted nearly half of its time to the circumstances involving United Airlines, and workers impacted by that company's bankruptcy. However, as Salisbury noted, "Many workers do not even have the safety nets described for the families shown on the Frontline broadcast: They have no retirement plan and no employer involvement…They are really on the edge of working forever if they do not do something."

"Work by both the Employee Benefit Research Institute and the Profit Sharing/401(k) Council of America clearly shows that a defined contribution plan may be able to do all that is needed for a focused worker who participates and saves at a high level for a full career, and then is very careful about what he or she does after retirement," Salisbury noted. However, he went on to stake out a different position from PSCA. "Contrary to the conclusions of the Profit Sharing/401(k) Council, I believe repeated showing of the Frontline program could cause people to wake up to the need to get moving on planning, budgeting, saving, avoiding debt, getting financial education and taking control of their lives so that they do not have to work forever. I hope the Frontline broadcast will serve as an effective wake-up call to all on the absolute necessity for Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid to be kept secure as the programs that still can keep retirement alive for most Americans - at a very basic level - when they must retire."

And then, in a comment sure to be appreciated by the plan sponsor community, Salisbury said, "Employers do more than any other segment of our society to make saving possible. Bless them-I hope that more Americans take advantage of retirement plans at work."

For more about the program and a preview, go tohttp://www.pbs.org/frontline/retirement

You can view the program online at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/retirement/view/