The retirement industry is complicated, outdated, and serves a workforce that no longer exists. Originally created to replace the pension system, the 401k was intended to provide employees who worked for the same company, for the majority of their career, a way to save for retirement.

But, in the forty-plus years since 401k plans were created, the workforce has changed in dramatic ways. Today, people are mobile and will have an average of 12 jobs throughout their career. Many companies are also making a strategic shift toward keeping their workforce independent contractors as a way to keep costs down. These shifts in the workforce require a parallel shift in how people access retirement plans.

Or else we’ll all pay the price.

The Harrowing Stats

  • Almost 36% of Americans have never had a retirement account. Not because they don’t want one, but because most of them don’t have access to a workplace retirement plan (e.g., a 401k). This problem is going to get worse as more and more people choose to work for themselves and/or become independent contractors. In fact, 86.5 million workers are predicted to be self-employed by 2027 (Statista). None of whom is eligible to contribute to a 401k.
  • In 2020 there were 147.79 million people employed in the U.S. and only 60 million of those participated in a 401k. That’s 40% of the workforce.
  • About 50% of women and 47% of men aged 55 to 66 have no personal retirement savings. 
  • Only 22% of women have $100,000 in savings or more, which is worrisome when healthcare alone is expected to cost the average 65 year old $300,000 in retirement.
  • The annual contribution limit for an IRA (the only type of retirement savings vehicle available to everyone, regardless of their type of employment) is $6,000 (an additional $1,000 is allowed for those age 55 and older). Compare this to the $20,500 limit for 401ks for 2022 (with a $6,500 catch-up allowed for 55 older), and you see that even if these workers open their own retirement savings account, it’s difficult for them to save the amount they’ll need for retirement.  

The current system that relies on 401ks as the preferred vehicle for retirement savings isn’t working.

What Makes 401ks Outdated for the Modern Workforce?

Lack of portability. The 401k is set up and sponsored by the employer, which means once someone leaves the company, they’re no longer eligible to contribute to their plan. They must either roll their previous employer’s plan into a new one (which could be costly, if it’s even allowed), manage multiple plans, abandon the account, or cash out.

Today, people spend between 2 and 8 years at a job , which means that 15 million people change jobs each year. That’s 15 million people who are forced to make potentially damaging decisions about their financial future because of the way the 401k is structured.  

Unfair eligibility leaves a lot of people out. The 401k system is restrictive when it comes to who is qualified to participate. Typically, to “qualify” for a 401k, you must be a full-time employee who has worked for your employer for a certain time period. If you’re a part-time employee you’re only eligible to participate if you book between 500 and 999 hours with your employer over a consecutive two-year period. If you’re an independent contractor, you’re not eligible at all. Even if you work 40 hours a week or more for the company.

If you’re an employer, surprise, you’re a fiduciary. Over the past decade, several high-profile lawsuits have brought an increased level of attention to employer’s legal responsibilities in offering 401k plans. This is because employers become fiduciaries when they sponsor plans. They are responsible for ensuring the plans are fair, managed in the best interests of plan participants and in compliance with ERISA guidelines. Even if the 401k provider takes on some fiduciary responsibilities, the employer always remains a fiduciary, as well.

Due to these liabilities, risks, and costs, many employers would like to remove themselves from the responsibility of being a fiduciary to their employees’ retirement savings.

Antiquated technology. Much of the technology the 401k industry uses is shockingly outdated. This is worrisome. These behemoth systems create massive inefficiencies that result in high fees that are passed on to plan participants, which erodes their life savings. In addition, outdated technology makes the process of saving cumbersome and out-of-step with other consumer experiences. Today’s customers expect products to be easy to use, accessible, personalized, and fairly priced.

Fees, fees, and more fees. Today, high fees are costing people billions of dollars in lost savings. This is especially true for those who work for small to medium companies. Sadly, smaller companies pay much higher 401k fees because they don’t have the negotiating leverage of larger companies.

The Solution is Portable Retirement.

The last decade has brought rapid innovation to banking, payment processing, and systems integration. These new technologies provide the components required to build an alternative retirement savings architecture that serves the needs of the evolving workforce.

Beyond technology, there are other design and product features required for a modern retirement savings plan including: low (transparent) fees, high quality funds, universal accessibility, holistic financial education, and support with personal finances.

Icon. The modern retirement plan.

Built by industry experts in behavioral finance, technology, and design thinking, Icon is an entirely new approach.

Icon eliminates the regulations, costs, and risks for employers, and completely redefines the employer’s role. Icon is the simplest way to offer a retirement plan.

It gives people the freedom and flexibility to save in a low-cost, easy-to-use, tax-deferred savings plan. And, unlike a 401k plan, there are no limits on who can use it. Everyone qualifies: full-time, part-time, independent contractors, gig workers.

And for the millions who work for themselves, Icon can help them achieve financial security through a structured, self-directed, and flexible retirement savings plan.

Join us in our mission to improve financial security for all working Americans.

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