Any number of opinionators have claimed that one of the best ads during Sunday’s Super Bowl was discount broker E-Trade’s “This is Getting Really Old.” The commercial featured a number of elderly people—including DJ Nana and a lifeguard in Savannah—still on the job and singing, “I’m 85 and I want to go home,” to the tune of Harry Belafonte’s Day-O (The Banana Boat Song). “Over 1/3 of Americans have no retirement savings. This is getting old,” flashes across the screen. Then a voiceover: “Don’t get mad. Get E-Trade.”
The timing, shall we say, was not felicitous. The Friday before the ad ran, the Dow Jones dropped a you-can’t-make-this-up-it’s so-symbolic 666 points. The Monday afterwards, it dropped another 1,175 points, erasing all the gains made by the index since the beginning of the year.
Anyone watching the news as the stock market careened could hear panic in voices of many anchors and guests. It’s hard not to panic, especially if you hear phrases like “largest one-day point drop in history” and “stock market in free fall” on television over and over again. But I don’t blame TV for riling people up. I blame the age of financialization, which promotes individual stock-market investing as the solution for any number of personal financial woes.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the realm of retirement savings, the subject of the E-Trade ad. You know the tale. Once upon a time, a decent percentage of American workers could expect to retire with a pension. But the Individual Retirement Account came into being the 1970s and the 401(k) in the 1980s. They were meant to supplement pensions, not replace them. But that’s not how it worked out. Companies, for any number of reasons, began to freeze and end pension plans, seemingly en masse, tossing people to the mercies of defined contribution plans.
A chorus of financial cheerleaders quickly emerged, predicting great things. “Investing in a 401(k) is a pretty easy way to make a million bucks by the time you retire,” proclaimed Kiplinger’s magazine in 2007. Well, maybe, if you are an upper-middle-class professional who experienced few if any career-related setbacks.
At least a third of workers don’t have access to a retirement plan at work. As for the rest, many aren’t exactly putting away the sums that could make them millionaires. Polls repeatedly show Americans are all but petrified of running out of money in retirement—and for good reason. According to Fidelity, the average balance in a 401(k) or IRA account is about $100,000. It’s not nothing, but it’s a far cry from seven figures.