One for the Books – The Biggest Mistake Young Workers Make

A lot of people know that I served as the pension and employee benefit counsel for a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee. But fewer people know that before that, I was a high school English teacher.

As the assistant secretary of labor for employee benefits security, I still appreciate good, clear writing (although as anybody who’s worked in a government agency can tell you, some days that can be hard to find). That’s one of the reasons I’ve been enjoying a new project we started as part of the department’s 100th anniversary.

Collage of book coversBooks That Shaped Work in America isn’t just a collection of titles that show how the nation’s workforce has developed over the past century. It’s also a great reading list.

Of course, I’m particularly drawn to the books that reflect on retirement issues – books like Studs Terkel’s “Working,” which includes a whole section on “reflections on idleness and retirement” and the intimate connections between work and identity; or Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” with its themes about the hard work that goes into planning and building a future.

Miller’s play is one of several titles you might see on a high school reading list, alongside classics like “The Age of Innocence,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In fact, I think the presence of these books proves that these books don’t just reflect the changing workforce; in many cases, they’ve helped bring those changes about. It’s important for young people to read books like these, because work is going to play a vital part in their lives and it’s never too early to start thinking about what that means.

And while retirement probably seems impossibly distant to high school and college students who have never held a full-time job, the fact is that it’s never too early to start thinking about retirement either. In fact, assuming that retirement is something only old people need to worry about is one of the biggest retirement mistakes young workers can make. In my agency, we see all the time the consequences of delaying plans and investments, and we know how important it is for workers to educate themselves about saving for the future.

That’s why EBSA has products geared toward young workers, like new employee savings tips and financial planning webcasts for college students. The earlier you start saving – even if you start small – the more you’ll have down the line. And when it comes to retirement savings, that’s one of the most important lessons you can learn.

Phyllis C. Borzi is the assistant secretary of labor for employee benefits security.

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