This week, the Aspen Financial Security Program (FSP) announced that Karen Andres, Vice President of the Center for Financial Services Innovation, has begun a fellowship, where she will focus her efforts on stewarding one of FSP’s signature events, the Aspen Leadership Forum on Retirement Savings. The Forum – an annual invitation-only gathering of senior leaders from industry, government, academia, and advocacy – is designed to foster trust, dialogue, and action leading to a more robust and inclusive retirement savings system that builds financial security for all workers. In addition to shaping the 2019 Forum, Karen will work closely with Aspen FSP Associate Director David Mitchell and the programs growing network of retirement policy and industry leaders to build out an integrated set of activities throughout the year that advance the goals and objectives of the Forum. Karen will also, separately, continue to serve as a Vice President at the Center for Financial Services Innovation (CFSI) where she works with some of the nation’s largest financial service brands to spur innovation that generates positive financial health consumer outcomes.
In anticipation of Karen joining the team, she sat down with Ida Rademacher, vice president at the Aspen Institute, and executive director of the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program, to discuss the new role.
Ida Rademacher: I’m thrilled we were able to work out this partnership with you and CFSI, Karen, and welcome! I know we share the perspective that market innovation and industry leadership is essential to any effort to strengthen the financial health and security of American workers. That’s an area where you have deep expertise, yet I also know that part of the appeal of this opportunity was the potential to spur policy innovation in the retirement space. What is it about the Leadership Forum and collaborating with Aspen that perked your interest?
Karen: I began my career as a 401(k) educator, teaching English- and Spanish-speaking workers about the ins and outs of retirement savings. Those years of working with plan sponsors and their participants (and non-participants) were formative, convincing me that the financial services industry has a big role to play in meaningfully improving the lives of Americans. To that end, I have spent the past 10 years with the Center for Financial Services Innovation, working to improve the financial health of Americans by helping banks and other large financial services companies better understand the needs of their financially struggling customers, and then develop and deliver innovative transactional, short-term savings, and small-dollar credit products to drive positive consumer outcomes.
The banking world is complicated, but the retirement world has even more layers, in many ways – particularly the densely populated defined contribution supply chain. From a policy perspective, the retirement world is off the charts: once you take ERISA regulation (the Employee Retirement Income Security Act), then layer on investment and advising regulation, questions of fiduciary responsibility, federal tax policy, and interactions with Social Security, you have an ecosystem that is incredibly complex. The downside, of course, is that this world is – can we just say it? – incredibly wonky. But there’s a tantalizing upside: if the proverbial soil has been tilled and seeded with the right ideas, the right political moment can come along, and huge impact can happen. Though my work to date has been focused on private market innovation, I have seen firsthand the way thoughtful curation of dialogue and relationships and leaders can pay dividends in terms of ultimate consumer impact. I’m just delighted about this opportunity to both bring my financial health lens to the dialogue in the retirement security ecosystem, and to pitch in on the great policy-focused work that your team and stakeholder network here at the Financial Security Program has been advancing for years.
Ida: I know its early days, but can you share some of your vision for next year’s Leadership Forum on Retirement Savings? And how you see us doing even more to link the Forum to the rest of FSP’s work on other financial challenges like income volatility, liquidity, and consumer debt – how do you imagine that will manifest itself?
Karen: Well, I’m extraordinarily lucky to have such a terrific platform to build on, and to have so many assets here at FSP to work with. My role is about shepherding a collective vision, drawing on the insight and wisdom from the Advisory Group for the Aspen Leadership Forum on Retirement Savings. It’s been a pleasure to get to know and to work with our Advisory Group members in these early weeks as I’m developing a point of view on next year’s event.
Here’s a sneak peek of some early themes for next year. Look for a highly interactive event, one that seeks to create unexpected – maybe even serendipitous – connections and relationships between guests. We will also push ourselves to tackle the Big Questions, like how to universalize access to workplace retirement plans, because the challenge in front of us demands it. And, we’ll be maintaining a strong emphasis on Americans’ holistic financial lives. The work that Aspen EPIC has done on consumer debt and income volatility has a vital role in the dialogue, reinforcing that, at the end of every policy proposal or innovative new partnership, there’s a real person with a complex financial life. We must begin our policy and initiative design with the end in mind, and that requires humbly grounding ourselves in the dynamics of people’s financial lives.
Ida: What current developments are you most excited about in the intersection of retirement, technology, and inclusion?
Karen: When I was out in factories and hog farms, helping workers make good decisions about saving and investing for retirement, I heard loud and clear that they understood the need to save, but they first needed help with multiple facets of their day-to-day financial lives, like building emergency savings, paying down debt, or managing unpredictable incomes. Back then, it was hard to imagine how traditional banks or credit unions could effectively serve all of these customers’ needs – but that was before the iPhone. Fast forward to 2018, and there has been a veritable explosion of financial technology apps and solutions that are revolutionizing the way we manage our money. If we can help embed the most powerful fintech solutions within the defined contribution channel, leveraging the proven behavioral power of automation, as well as that critical proximity to a worker’s salary, I think there’s enormous potential to help them free up some of that cash flow and direct more pay into their qualified plan. This, by the way, is how I think we can really make good on the promise of “financial wellness.”
Ida: What do you think it will take to make retirement security a national policy priority that compels action?
Karen: Call me an optimist, but I think we may be entering a moment of real opportunity to make retirement security a national policy priority. Let me make my case. First, I believe that the confluence of the Baby Boomers’ aging, trends toward humanization and storytelling in journalism, and Americans’ increasing comfort level with telling our stories in social media means that we are going to be reading more stories of seniors who are suffering from financial insecurity as they age. What we now think of as a retirement insecurity crisis will become understood as an elder poverty crisis, and I believe that will offend us as a nation, leading to calls for action. Second, in this highly polarized political environment, policymakers from both sides of the aisle are searching for winning issues, and retirement security is a prime example of an issue that can be solved with ideas and solutions from “the middle.” Finally, I’m optimistic about our chances for action because, unlike other thorny challenges our society is facing, retirement security is largely solvable. A quick glance through the Rapporteur’s Report from the 2018 Aspen Leadership Forum on Retirement Savings shows how many tools we actually have in the toolbox, from knowing what works in countries similar to the United States, to state-tested models for qualified plan coverage expansion, to future-forward thinking about how to regulate the provision of financial wellness solutions in the defined contribution channel. The Leadership Forum truly is a place where people bring their creative thinking and ideas about different facets of the retirement security challenge, road-test them, and come out with an even more refined approach. The opportunity for us at Aspen FSP is to create the venues and the moments when we can bring together the wealth of collective expertise and creativity from the Leadership Forum with the right people in government and industry, throughout the year, to support their work on behalf of Americans who are facing a financially insecure retirement. Given what I have seen so far in my time with Aspen FSP, I’m highly optimistic that we can do just that.