So is it possible the retirement crisis is oversold?
"It's not merely possible, it's probable," said Andrew Biggs, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and former deputy commissioner for policy at the Social Security Administration. For one thing, he notes that while many contend low-earning Americans aren't saving enough for retirement, poverty is lower during retirement than during people's working years.
A 2016 Census Bureau report shows that in 2015 just 8.8 percent of people 65 and older were impoverished, compared to 19.7 percent of children under 18 and 12.4 percent of 18- to 65-year-olds.
If there were a crisis, Biggs says, retired people should be complaining. Yet a 2016 Gallup poll found 74 percent of U.S. retirees say they are living comfortably. And a 2017 Vanguard report found just 16 percent of retirees were dissatisfied with their financial situation, compared with 21 percent of pre-retirees.
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Perhaps most surprisingly, Biggs points to recent research suggesting retiree incomes generally match or even exceed their pre-retirement incomes. A 2017 study by Internal Revenue Service and Investment Company Institute researchers analyzed tax returns and found most people experience no income dropoff after claiming Social Security. In fact, the median household's income rises after retirement.
"It's hard to paint a picture where this leads to a true retirement crisis," Biggs said.
Retirement policy can get tangled up in ideology, partisan politics and Beltway power struggles. Presumably, those concerns would not influence a Canadian such as Frederick Vettese, chief actuary at Toronto-based human resource advisor Morneau Shepell and author of The Essential Retirement Guide: A Contrarian's Perspective.
Vettese also doubts the retirement crisis. "The retirement savings crisis has definitely been oversold," he said. "A good indication of this is that pre-retirees have a significantly higher level of concern about whether they are financially prepared for retirement than is the case for retirees."
Buttressing Vettese's point, the 2017 Vanguard study found that 10 percent of U.S. pre-retirees considered their financial situation to be in crisis, while just 4 percent of retired people felt likewise.
Vettese says those who warn of crisis are basing their concern on "highly flawed" estimates of what a comfortable retirement costs.
The General Accounting Office in 2015 examined competing claims for existence of a retirement crisis and agreed that varying estimates of post-retirement spending needs explained most of the disagreement.