Soapbox

New retirement plan will provide financial security to millennials

Yvonne Walker, president of SEIU Local 1000, talks with Sen. Kevin De León, D-Los Angeles, about a retirement savings plan bill in 2012 that is now law and being finalized.
Yvonne Walker, president of SEIU Local 1000, talks with Sen. Kevin De León, D-Los Angeles, about a retirement savings plan bill in 2012 that is now law and being finalized. Sacramento Bee file

Politicians, scientists and journalists have all tried, and failed, to define my generation, the so-called millennials. The main difference I see between my peers and older people is that we are the first generation to grow up with the recognition that we might be less financially secure than our parents.

Maybe that’s why we tend to save more and spend less, why we value relationships more than we trust institutions and why we need a safe place to collectively invest in our own future.

Thankfully, there is hope: California is developing a new plan to help private-sector employees save for retirement even if they don’t have such an option through their jobs with a pension or 401(k). That plan is at a pivotal point when the state’s Secure Choice Retirement Savings Investment Board meets Monday.

When the board heard from the public in Los Angeles earlier this month, I was encouraged to see members of my generation speaking up for a retirement plan that shares risks across workers and across generations so no one loses their savings in a stock market crash.

Experts agree this approach – called a pooled IRA with reserve – is the best way for workers to maximize their earnings and minimize risk. But the financial industry has opposed it, preferring a status quo where private workers bear market risk on their own.

The Los Angeles neighborhood of Koreatown where I grew up is home to many Latin American families like mine. The realities of poverty overwhelm any dreams of retirement. My great-grandma did physically demanding labor in a Beverly Hills retirement home kitchen until a stroke took away her ability to work at age 70. She’d invested everything in raising my mom and me, and now it’s our turn to support her because Social Security isn’t close to enough for her to keep her apartment.

My mom has always had a good office job, but with four kids to raise, she’s never had an extra penny to put away for retirement. My own retirement is far away, but I worry that my mom will have to work until she dies. Sadly, that’s more and more common as women older than 65 only have about half the income as men and are more likely to be in poverty.

Saving for retirement is an extra challenge for my generation because the nature of work itself has changed. Jobs are more likely to be part-time, temporary or contracted, without stability or benefits. I am one of the lucky few with full-time work I love – advocating for low-wage workers and immigrant families like mine. But like many jobs in the nonprofit sector, it offers no retirement benefits.

If there were a structured way for me to save for retirement, I would make it a priority to put something away so I can build the financial stability I’ll need to take care of my aging mom and secure my own future. I hope to have the chance to invest alongside my peers and the 7.5 million California workers with no job-based retirement plan.

By allowing us to invest together and share risks, the Secure Choice board can restore a piece of the American Dream for my generation.

Scarlett De Leon is an organizer at the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance in Los Angeles. She can be contacted at Scarlett@kiwa.org.

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