In an era of shrinking pensions, it is clear the 401(k) retirement savings account is here to stay.
But the complex inner workings of a 401(k) remain shrouded in mystery for many 401(k) participants -- ordinary workers with either limited or non-existent financial literacy.
"It really is a constant education," said Jeanne Thompson, vice president of thought leadership at Fidelity Investments, the country's largest 401(k) servicer.
"We're number one," Thompson said.
Fidelity granted us behind-the-scenes access to its massive 401(k) apparatus, which manages 12.6 million accounts worth approximately $1 trillion.
We expected to wind up on Wall Street. It is, after all, the world's financial capital. But we wound up in New England.
Boston is home to Fidelity—and likely, by extension, your future.
"It's an awesome responsibility," said Chris Bartel, senior vice president of global equity research at Fidelity.
401(k) accounts are mere collections of investments, which are largely bundled into mutual funds. And each mutual fund has a manager.
If you wanted to put a face on your 401(k), if you wanted to put a face on one of those fund managers, Bartel's face would fit.
An M.B.A., he has managed multiple funds during his tenure at Fidelity, moving millions of retirement dollars in and out of companies and commodities every single day.
"The amount of money moved is staggering," he said, noting that Fidelity is often the largest institutional investor in a company.
Bartel says participants might be surprised to learn that fund managers, whose names or pictures you will see in a fund prospectus, do not bet alone.
"What you don't see is 400-some-odd investment professionals behind that person," he said.
Fidelity says each fund manager works closely with an army of analysts. Bartel said analysts, who report to him, travel the world meeting with companies. They often tour plants or production facilities, deciding whether a particular business is worth a wager with your money.
"They're picking the best ideas," he said. "If you think about machinery stocks or auto companies, they're actually out in the factories, out in the dealerships."
Bartel said the analysts Fidelity sends out into the field are often experts in their field. It's not just a crop of freshly minted M.B.A.'s.
"We have our share of M.B.A.'s," he said. But then added, "we have a Harvard Ph.D. whose job is to look at bio-tech companies."
Here's how Bartel simplifies his job of juggling it all: "I herd cats on a global scale," he said.
And it all happens from an unassuming brown building that hardly screams '$1 trillion inside.'
An hour or so north of Boston, where towering maples and glistening lakes are the stuff of poetry or paintings, sits another Fidelity nerve center.
"It's a campus," said Fidelity's Mike Gillette, vice president for guidance.
Gillette took us to a behemoth room where hundreds of workers work the phone. But this is no ordinary call center.
Besides the room's enormous size, covering an entire acre according to Fidelity, the people here are college-educated and licensed.
"You need to pass a licensing exam," Gillette said. "It's a series 7 [brokerage] license."
Gillette said the call center logs as many as 15,000 401(k) questions a day. Sometimes the inquiries are simple, such as enrollment questions. Other times, advisors are charged with talking a participant out of a potentially disastrous financial decision such as an early withdrawal.
"I have a group of associates that try to conduct an intervention all day long," Gillette said.
Gillette began his career answering the phone. He said it's rewarding to assist customers with saving for their future.
"That's a great feeling at the end of the day," he said.
Critics have accused the financial services industry of shaving hefty management fees from participants' funds. Some funds charge participants one or two percent annually. When it is compounded over a career, the fees can cost workers tens of thousands of dollars.
Fidelity says some critiques of the industry's fees, both from critics and participants, lack a complete perspective of the full scope of active portfolio management.
"I think they'd be blown away," Bartel said. "You don't see the army."
Thompson, the Fidelity research whose job is to search for trends in our quarterly statements, says 401(k) education must improve -- especially since the 401(k) continues to replace traditional pensions.
"Many people don't realize what's going on behind the scenes," she said.