A New Retirement System for a New Generation

03/24/2016 02:56 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2017
In a photo taken on March 15, 2016 US soldiers of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit infantry take part in a live fire drill
In a photo taken on March 15, 2016 US soldiers of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit infantry take part in a live fire drill during an exercise entitled 'Ssang Yong', near South Korea's southeastern port city of Pohang. Ssang Yong, meaning 'twin dragons', is a biennial military exercise 'focused on strengthening the amphibious landing capabilities of the U.S. and its allies', according to the US Pacific Command. The 11-day exercise brings together US Marines of the 13th and 31st Marine Expeditionary Units and their South Korean counterparts. On March 12, North Korea hit out at Washington and Seoul, pledging to launch a blitzkrieg in the Korean peninsula, with the official KCNA news agency, citing a statement from military chiefs, warning of a 'pre-emptive retaliatory strike at the enemy groups' involved in the joint US-South Korean exercise. / AFP / Ed Jones (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

The 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, approved last November, included the first major change in military retirement since World War II. Few noticed this provision, but its impact is significant, important, and will be good for the military and the nation.

Currently, military retirees receive a pension only after completing 20 years of service. That pension starts at 50% of salary at 20 years, increasing to 75% after 30 years. This retirement system is similar to other defined benefit plans from the 1950s that rewarded only those who stayed at a company for a career. The current system provides nothing to those who stay less than 20 years, is not what workers want today, and has become increasingly expensive.

The new military retirement system will begin in 2018 and has three basic parts. First, it adds a "defined contribution" component, similar to a 401k in the private sector. It starts with an automatic contribution by the military of 1% of a servicemember's base pay in their personal Thrift Savings Plan account. The servicemember can also contribute a percentage of his or her base pay, which the military will match up to 5%. After serving two years, Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Airmen, and Coast Guardsmen can take those savings, with the matching contribution, to their next job. Second, to retain experienced officers and noncommissioned officers, the new plan provides a continuation pay "bonus" at 12 years of service of at least 2.5 months of pay for those who commit to serve an additional 4 years. Third, the new plan reduces the pension paid to retirees after 20 years of service by 20%. This reduced pension over the lifetime of the retiree achieves the cost savings to permit the first two parts of the plan. The plan will be mandatory for those who join the military in 2018 and beyond. Those currently serving are grandfathered under the old plan, but those with less than 12 years of service can choose the new plan.

This new retirement system is better for individuals because it is more consistent with how the millennial generation thinks about employment. Few young workers today expect to stay with the same organization for a career, but they want an employer who rewards them for saving for retirement. This new plan enables that and, unlike the current system, vests after just two years. As a result, even those who serve only a few years will have retirement funds. It will require increased financial responsibility by military members, but from my experience assisting young AAFMAA members with their financial needs, today's military is ready, willing, and able to accept this responsibility. The new plan includes financial education so that military families can wisely invest their retirement savings, continuation bonuses, and pension funds to meet their current and long-term financial needs. If properly managed, a military family could accumulate more total funds under the new system with significantly greater flexibility and more personal control of their money.

This new retirement system is better for the Nation because it both helps recruit and retain a better military and can save money. Although exact savings depend on participation rates and other details, the plan could save $2 billion per year. This program represents a first step in limiting the increasing cost of military personnel compensation. Although the military has fewer people today than at any time since World War II, total military personnel costs are 25% higher than they were in 2000, after accounting for inflation. By reasonably reforming military compensation, the United States can continue to have the best military in the world and be in a better position to afford it.

Finally, this program provides a rare example of bipartisan entitlement reform that works. This change to the retirement system started in 2011 with a radical proposal by the Defense Business Board, which would not have worked, but started people thinking about the problem. Pentagon leaders and Congress examined the issue and established the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission (MCRMC), with a distinguished group of commissioners and staff. After significant input and study, the MCRMC presented a balanced, reasonable proposal, and it became the basis for the change in the retirement system.

The military has taken the lead on reforming military retirement, providing a model for other parts of government to follow with additional entitlement reform. The problems are significant, but not insurmountable. As the military demonstrated in its retirement reform, the Nation needs a bi-partisan, comprehensive approach that grandfathers current beneficiaries, but modernizes entitlements and saves money over the long run.