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This fall's credit crisis will most certainly be one of the defining markers of this decade. None of us will ever forget the events of the past several months or their effect on employers and employees alike.
The situation has been exacerbated by the steady drumbeat of round-the-clock news portraying our country and our citizens as powerless against the declining global financial markets. But now, as the dust starts to settle and as we begin to accept the "new normal," we are resoundingly convinced that Minnesotans can -- and will -- emerge from this crisis stronger and wiser than ever.
When we were growing up, there was no such thing as a 401(k) and very little talk about planning for anything but the next day's work. We've come a long way since then. Today, we expect to live longer, healthier lives and reside in safer, more prosperous communities than those before us. And most Minnesotans today are at least more aware of the need to save for retirement. The opportunity to save and accumulate money without paying taxes on it until the time of retirement is one of our nation's most essential allowances. We cannot lose sight of the importance and privilege of retirement savings, even in today's tough economy.
Yet currently, fewer than half of Minnesota workers participate in an employer-sponsored retirement savings plan. In the Twin Cities area alone, more than 500,000 full-time workers are not participating in their employers' 401(k) offerings. In this day and age, and especially given today's turbulent economy, saving for retirement, even if it is just a small amount every month, should be a priority.
Seven months ago, we joined the CEOs of more than 20 leading Minnesota employers and Gov. Tim Pawlenty to officially launch Financially Fit Minnesota, a program supported by the Itasca Project and designed to help employees close critical gaps in two key areas of personal finance -- retirement savings and use of direct-deposit for pay. Best Buy Co. Inc. CEO Brad Anderson has led this important effort that taps businesses in a way that no other financial-literacy program in the country does.
As Minnesota business and local government leaders, Financially Fit Minnesota's organizers are committed to educating employees about the importance of retirement savings and the benefits of planning ahead. With news of the economic downturn and with the troubled financial markets continuing to weigh heavily on everyone's minds, we realize that this is not the most popular stance right now.
However, we would argue that all Minnesota business leaders can help calm the fear that has spread so quickly, as a way to support our workforces and our communities. We can't influence the stock market's performance and we can't provide specific financial advice to our employees. But there are simple -- and vitally important -- steps that you as business leaders can take to help your employees be more financially fit, both in the short-term and long-term.
First, sign up your company or organization in Financially Fit Minnesota. Doing so is one important form of corporate social responsibility, and it's something you can do for your employees as well as for our communities.
Second, visit the Financially Fit Minnesota website, www.financiallyfitmn.org, to gain a better understanding of the benefits of a 401(k) and find out what you can do to increase employee participation.
Third, encourage your workforce to continue to save and plan for retirement, always with an eye toward the long term. Employees need to understand that a 401(k) is not a checking account; rather, it is a long-term investment whose funds should not be touched until the time of retirement. With regular contributions from the employee and employer, a 401(k) will provide financial security.
We cannot overemphasize the value of the employer match. No employee should leave this money on the table. The employer match is the same as free money.
Finally, make it easy for employees to participate in your 401(k) plan. By offering automatic enrollment and encouraging direct deposit for pay, employers likely will see a significant increase in participation. It's a well-known fact that participation in a 401(k) plan leads to improved employee retention.
It's easy to draw parallels between now and the early 1990s, when our economy was in a recession and still reeling from the stock market crash of 1987. Although it may feel as though we've hit bottom again, it's important to remember that our country, our economy, our cities and our neighborhoods will grow stronger from the lessons we've learned in the past several months.
A recent report released by Prudential Retirement shows that the first year after a bear market usually yields substantial returns. This study was based on an examination of the past nine bear markets, dating to 1957.
Each downturn was unique and characterized by very different circumstances. But historically, the most pessimistic periods have made for good long-term investment opportunities.
Prudential Retirement's conclusion is that it's important to be in the market and experience those returns when the market rebounds.
It will take time for our economy to rebound. And we'll need thoughtful leadership, global cooperation and appropriate government oversight to push us forward. But local business and community leaders can help in this grand effort by helping Twin Cities employees prepare for a more prosperous future.
We learned long ago, growing up in Minneapolis and St. Paul, that a secure workforce creates a secure community. It is in everyone's best interest to be financially fit. Let's not sit idly by and let fear cloud our view of what we all need to do: save for retirement.