Image: Anthony Mirhaydari

Anthony Mirhaydari

Will you be able to retire comfortably?

Like so much in life, it depends. Will Social Security still be around, and if so, will it provide more than a pittance? Will Medicare cover the costs of health care as you age?

More immediately, will you be able to keep working until you're ready to retire? And if so, will you earn enough to keep socking money away every month?

And, most important, will you be able to earn enough on your savings to fund a retirement?

When I wrote on this topic back in late 2010, in "How to build a million-dollar 401k," I picked a number often cited by financial planners that seemed like a nice, round target. I said getting there would require buying stocks and mean accepting some risk, at a time when neither was very popular. I tried to be realistic, but I hope it made $1 million seem not so out of reach.

But there's a hitch. For the young, at least, that may not be nearly enough.

No wonder they're in the streets

A recent survey of investment advisers suggests that for members of the up-and-coming Gen Y cohort, $2 million is a better retirement target.

Those not born in that 1977-to-1994 window aren't off the hook, either. For the more seasoned out there, especially baby boomers who have postponed saving for fast-approaching retirement, a similarly aggressive strategy will be needed to make up for lost time.

Is this doable? I think it is. But it will require more diligence, dexterity and determination than was required in the go-go 1980s and 1990s, an era the entire financial advisory industry and its "buy and hold" mentality remains fixated on. And it will require people to end their long love affair with bonds, because those supposedly reliable fixed-income assets look set to underperform for years to come.

First, let's address the elephant in the room: skepticism that this is even possible, and a creeping feeling that unless you're a Wall Street trader or a hedge-fund jockey, the system is hopelessly stacked against you. Because paralysis is not going to get anyone to $2 million.

Yes, the market has failed us

It's easy to forget, with all the emphasis on CEO pay, banker bonuses, insider trading, scandals, fraud and such, but half of the stock market's two-part mission is to help average Americans build wealth, provide for their families and save for retirement.

(The other half of the stock market's mission is to funnel wealth to entrepreneurs and fast-growing businesses. I'd argue it's failing here as well -- witness the recent string of failed initial public offerings and the accumulation of idle cash on the books of America's largest companies -- but that's a story for another day.)

The stock market is also the institution by which the social contract of American capitalism -- that while not all share in the spoils of growth equally, all can participate in it -- is made manifest.

Yet, by just about any measure you'd care to use, Wall Street has been failing the average investor miserably for more than a decade. No wonder the Occupy Wall Street movement generated so much heat before the chill of winter and the holidays set in.

S&P 500 Total Return Index © MSN Money

The Standard & Poor's 500 Index ($INX) is trading at levels first reached in 1999 and has been drifting sideways ever since, in a stomach-churning, dream-crushing trading range. Even accounting for dividends, the S&P 500 continues to flirt with levels reached in the closing moments of the 20th century.

But over this same period, the U.S. economy has grown by 21%, or $2.3 trillion. Corporate profits have trebled to a record $1.5 trillion. Average investors just haven't gotten their cut.

Income inequality has returned to Progressive Era extremes seen before Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt reeled it in with stiff taxes and new social programs. Poverty is on the rise. Wages have stalled. Labor force participation has fallen to 30-year lows. Food stamp usage is off the charts. And inflation has devalued the power of the dollar by 34%.

So yeah, a pretty abysmal record.

Now, there are exceptions. Small- and mid-cap stocks have done well despite suffering two round trips to late-1990s levels during the 2001 and 2007 recessions. So have bonds, which are putting the finishing touches on a 30-year bull market. But these are nuances, and I don't think they reflect the realities for typical retail investors engaging in a buy-and-hold strategy focused on the largest, "safest" companies.

So what are people to do? As I've suggested in the past, one of the few ladders left with which to climb the social strata is to become a business owner and participate in the growth of American enterprise. Direct entrepreneurship is the best bet. But indirect investing in the stock market remains a good alternative.

Moreover, for those angry at the growing wealth of the top 1%, a majority of their riches are tied to business equity. In short, they own stocks or similar assets. If you can't beat them politically and through the tax code, join them.

If none of that convinces you, keep in mind that with the Federal Reserve pushing both short- and long-term interest rates toward zero, and into negative territory after adjusting for inflation, there are few good long-term alternatives for savers. Very few people can save $1 million or $2 million from their paychecks before retirement if they're earning only 1% or 2% interest.