When Chad Parks and his film crew set off across the country to film "Broken Eggs: The Looming Retirement Crisis in America," a documentary about the three-legged stool of retirement, they found out they were using the wrong metaphor.
“For certain generations that might be appropriate. People in their 60s may have a three-legged stool: personal savings, pension and Social Security, but when you move down through the ages into people in their 50s, 40s, 30s, 20s, some people commented that it is really a pogo stick,” said Parks, the founder and CEO of The Online 401(k).
“It’s really all about personal savings. Pensions are not available to them and Social Security, if there is any component for that individual, is pretty minimal.”
This information sent the documentary crew back to the drawing board, needing to pull the information they received into a more telling piece that better reflects the actual attitudes of people across the country.
Parks and his crew set out April 17 from San Francisco to interview Americans on the street about their retirement savings habits and their knowledge of retirement savings. The team also wanted to interview people involved in the industry and politicians about their views on retirement. The crew interviewed between 125 and 150 people, with a wide spectrum of personalities, as they traversed 6,000 miles in six weeks.
“I think we’re getting a good cross section and a pretty good profile,” he said.
The Online 401(k) works in the small business retirement space. Part of Parks’ motivation for filming the documentary was to help people make sense of all the information floating around about pensions, the future of Social Security and the problems with 401(k) plans.
But, as he stated at the outset of our interview, he was stunned by what people were telling him and it changed his whole perspective on the film.
“We were pleasantly surprised. What we found was a very broad-based awareness and a very broad-based opinion set,” Parks said. “A lot of people would start off with, “I don’t have much to say on it,” but once they got going, they found out that they do and that there were a lot of pockets of well thought out [opinions], definitely pockets of very passionate people.”
He added that the arguments were not as one-sided as you would imagine. “In today’s political environment, everyone is a right wing conservative or a left wing liberal, but there is a lot of neutrality with this. It is not politics. This rises above politics. It is a societal issue, not a red or blue state issue,” Parks said. “There were a lot of positive things even in rural areas.”
One of the overriding themes was that, “people are realizing that they need to take personal responsibility. It is not up to the government to take care of their problems, or their place of employment to do so. The challenge, I think, is that just because you know what you need to do, doesn’t mean you will do it.”
Another theme was retirement at age 65. Parks and his crew wanted to find out where that arbitrary number came from because there are some people who believe that “magically, at age 65, something is supposed to happen,” he said. One person they interviewed said that the age of 65 used to be two years past the average life expectancy at the time, which was 63, so Social Security was originally designed as a safety net for widows and orphans. “It was not meant to be a main pillar of retirement,” he said.
“One of the things we can help do with the film is redefine what retirement is. It is not a line in the sand at age 65. That’s when you can draw Social Security benefits, but it doesn’t mean you are done or you have to stop working. It’s an old story that needs a new definition,” Parks said.
The documentary crew didn’t ask about specific topics, like fee disclosure in a 401(k) plan, but tried to keep things more general in asking if people knew how retirement plans were priced.
“We didn’t make that a topic, however we obviously, as this is unfolding, are getting lots of questions, feedback and opinions about what this means,” Parks said.
The documentary crew visited Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, New York and Washington, D.C. The film was to be released on 401(k) Day in September 2012, but because the crew gleaned so much information from its subjects and have such a “great story here, there’s a lot of opportunity; we shouldn’t rush to get something out the door,” Parks said.
He plans to release a 5 to 7-minute teaser video on the day the documentary was to be released but has no firm launch date for the full film. “We’re not Hollywood. We don’t have to launch Labor Day weekend; we can take a longer time massaging the piece,” Parks said. “We want to release it. We want people to watch it and for it to spur conversations.”