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Pension Promises Go Unfulfilled

August 15, 2013

I don't know which is worse: realizing you cannot keep a promise you made to someone important to you, or being the person who relied on the promise when you grasp that it is not going to be kept.

In 1973, I was 33 years old and just starting a public-speaking career. The National Speakers Association asked me to join, and I became a charter member. Our first president, the late Bill Gove, was a terrific speaker and also a great salesman—one of the top life insurance salesmen in the country for many years.

One of his favorite lines was quite telling. He would ask his prospect, "How much life insurance do you have?" The person would tell him. Bill would pause, get a funny look on his face, and deliver the punch line as a question: "You don't plan on being dead very long?" Every time I saw him deliver that line, the audience would roar.

Were Bill alive today, he would probably be selling annuities to those same clients. I don't understand why insurance companies don't call annuities "enjoying-life insurance." If they did, they would probably sell more. Somehow I can't see Bill telling a story of asking a prospect about their retirement portfolio, and then delivering the punch line, "You don't plan on being retired very long?" My guess is the audience would shift in their seats and perhaps chuckle uncomfortably. What's the difference? An entire generation would know he is right; we are very worried that we won't have enough money to enjoy retirement.

So what has changed since 1973? Most of us never thought too much about retirement when we were younger. In the 1970s, if you worked for the government, were a union member, or worked for a medium to large corporation, there was a good probability that you were guaranteed a pension, particularly if you worked there for any length of time. Couple that with Social Security and you could enjoy retirement. My dad had two pensions—one from the State of Illinois and another from the post office—and he did just that.

During my career, I trained salespeople and managers. I always warned salespeople not to exaggerate or overpromise to their clients. I told them: "Don't let your hippopotamus mouth overload your hummingbird ass!" That line certainly got their attention. The consequences of not keeping a promise in the marketplace can be devastating. They can include the loss of a client, but also the loss of your reputation.

The corporate world, many unions, and federal, state, and local governments are all guilty of doing just that. They made pension promises to their employees that they just could not keep. I had a good friend who became a senior pilot at Delta Airlines and was quite proud the day he flew his last flight into Atlanta Hartsfield Airport. The customary fire hoses greeted his plane, and he had a big retirement party. Less than two years later, Delta filed for bankruptcy, the government took over its pension obligations, and his pension was drastically reduced. Sad to say, he passed away within five years.

The current Employee Benefit Research Institute Retirement Survey reports that only 3% of employees in the private sector have a pension plan. The rest have some sort of savings plan, like a 401(k). Corporate America has successfully unraveled from its pension promises in two ways: either companies bellied up and shifted the pension liability to the government; or they transferred the responsibility back to individual workers. It is now our job to worry about our own well-being. In effect, companies now just administrator voluntary savings plans for their employees.

While corporate America made promises it could not keep, at least most companies 'fessed up to the economic reality, explained that making good on their promises would force them into bankruptcy, and got out from under those commitments.

Our government is doing the opposite of 'fessing up. While corporate America is unraveling from economic promises it could not keep, governments big and small are doing the opposite. In addition to their generous pension plans, we all now have health care (even non-citizens), food stamps, longer-term unemployment benefits, etc. The list of promises goes on and on. The government has its hippopotamus mouth going full blast in every election cycle, making promises to win elections.

Those who speak up (see Ron Paul) and point out that those economic promises are going to bankrupt us all are criticized and ridiculed. Unfortunately, there is one major difference between corporate America making promises and the government doing the same: the government is making promises with our money! It is driving us into bankruptcy. When that happens, the value of a country's currency will normally collapse, destroying the wealth of seniors and savers in the process.

While it may be bleak, it is not hopeless. I recently read John Stossel's latest book, No, They Can't: Why Government Fails—But Individuals Succeed. The book outlines our current predicament in very easy-to-understand terms. It also strengthened my personal resolve and gave me hope... a funny choice of words, as I think about it.

Every day, more people see these promises for what they really are: hollow and illusionary. There is no point in debating whether they were made in good faith or not. Who the hell cares? The real issue is: they are promises that are financially impossible to keep.

John's book reinforced what I already knew: Americans are a hardy lot, and a lot of us succeed in spite of horrible obstacles placed in front of us. The first step is to pop the illusion bubble, accept the responsibility for our own retirements, and get on with the job.

Oh, and to address the question I asked in the first paragraph. Worrying about breaking a promise is only important to folks with a conscience—not the kind of people who will just tell others whatever they want to hear. Guess what? We are on to their game and their phony promises. Educated, take-charge retirees can thrive when they put their minds to it. The government may renege on their promises, but we will succeed in spite of that.

I was so impressed with Stossel's book that I invited him to join us for an exclusive discussion on the challenges facing seniors. He'll be joined by a panel of experts including David Walker, former Comptroller General of the United States, and Jeff White, president of American Financial Group, to give you practical solutions to today's financial challenges.

Our event, America's Broken Promise: Strategies for a Retirement Worth Living is free, and it premieres on Thursday, Sept. 5 at 2 PM Eastern Time. Click that link for the details and to reserve your spot.

On the Lighter Side

As I read through your responses to our survey of post-retirement careers, a theme emerged: the will to overcome adversity. Folks wrote about disabilities, losing their jobs, and other tragic events, yet every story had an uplifting ending. People took stock of their resources, pooled their energies, and found ways to thrive. These stories reinforced my faith in the fortitude of the human spirit. The response window is closed, and I will share some of the stories in detail in a few weeks. In the meantime, thank you to everyone who shared his or her tale.

On Sunday, Jo and I head up to the Casey Research home base in Stowe, Vermont to prepare for America's Broken Promise. Stowe is near the Canadian border, and I'm eager to feel the cool night air blowing down from our neighbor to the north. There's not much of that in Florida. The locals suggested we each bring a sweater, even though the ski slopes won't open for a few months. That's fine with me—when I'm on skis, I'm one part Michelin Man and one part Mr. Magoo, praying I make it down the hill alive.

In other news, I was a "Hot Seat Guest" on The Chad Slagle Show on August 4. Click on the link if you'd like to watch the episode. You can even jump straight to my interview, which begins around the 6:45 mark. Enjoy!

And finally…

For a change of pace, I'm sharing cartoons this week courtesy of my friend Bob L.

And my favorite:

Until next week…

 
 

About the Author

Over the course of his career, Dennis Miller has consulted with many Fortune 500 companies, training hundreds of executives to effectively communicate the value of their company's products to their customers. Among his many multi-national clients are: GE, Mobil, Shell, Schlumberger, HP, IBM, Corning Glass, Eastman Kodak, AC Nielsen, and Johns-Manville.

An active international lecturer for 40 years, Dennis wrote several books on sales and sales management. He was a contributor to... read more