The 'Star Wars' theory of retirement

The undeniable box office success of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" goes beyond the $529 million it grossed during opening weekend: Economists say it was probably responsible for many of the 15,000 jobs added in the movie industry in December. They were part of a strong finish to 2015, which was highlighted in President Obama's final State of the Union as the second best year for job creation since 1999-- averaging 221,000 jobs gained per month.

A fan dressed as a Star Wars character poses in front of a movie theater to celebrate the opening of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" in Tokyo on December 18, 2015.
Kazuhiro Nogi | AFP | Getty Images
A fan dressed as a Star Wars character poses in front of a movie theater to celebrate the opening of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" in Tokyo on December 18, 2015.

This job growth is encouraging for the health of our economy, but it's important to ask where job gains are being made and whether Americans are in a better position to achieve financial security in their working years and in their retirement.

For Americans hoping to put aside some of each paycheck to save for retirement, one troubling number in the jobs report is wage growth. Hourly earnings rose only 2.5 percent in 2015, actually dipping slightly in December. For this point in an economic recovery, earnings should be rising at a rate of 3 to 4 percent.


If Americans are not taking home enough in each paycheck to cover their basic living expenses, how can they be expected to save for the future? We will not make progress on addressing the severe shortcomings in retirement savings in the United States if wages remain stagnant and if we eliminate pensions and other programs designed to help working families capitalize on their savings so they can retire with dignity.

The majority of those entering the workforce will likely be earning a modest salary, meaning every penny will count when it comes to getting by day-to-day, let alone saving for retirement. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the five occupations projected to grow the most between now and 2024 are personal care aides, registered nurses, home health aides, food preparation and servers (including fast-food jobs), and retail salespersons. These occupations are some of the lowest-paid, which is why President Obama said "saving for retirement or bouncing back from job loss has gotten a lot tougher."

Workers in the fast-food industry across the country are pushing to increase wages to $15 an hour and in the other professions, like home health and personal-care aids, earning wages sufficient for savings is a challenge.


Few workers in those professions will be members of a union, meaning the likelihood of them having a secure retirement through a pension is almost nonexistent. Without a pension, these workers will have to figure out how to save for retirement on their own and bet the savings they do have on a financial system built to benefit those with a six figure salary.

This means the majority of people entering the workforce fall into one of two categories that will make it nearly impossible to save the money needed to live a high quality of life upon leaving the workforce. Millions of Americans work in jobs that offer no option for saving for retirement.

These workers could take advantage of an IRA that restricts yearly contributions to $5,500 or they can put their savings under the mattress to avoid the risks of a volatile financial system. Workers lucky enough to have a retirement-savings vehicle at work can participate in a 401(k)-style account that has proven to be woefully inadequate for middle income Americans. For most Americans, neither option is attractive.


The U.S. economy was dealt a blow in 2008, when greedy financial schemes gutted everyday peoples' savings. Positive job growth is a sign that people are going back to work, contributing to the economy, and building a life for their families. However, if we don't address the issue of retirement, we are leaving Americans vulnerable to financial disaster. The 15,000 people who found work in movie theaters around the country should not be left high and dry.

Opening the door for the working class families to benefit from a retirement plan that works, like a pension, while protecting plans in place today, is one way we can ensure workers can maintain dignity throughout their entire lives.


Commentary by Bailey Childers, executive director of the National Public Pension Coalition which strives to protect the financial security of working families who rely on public pensions. Follow her at @baileykchilders.