In the old days only 30 years ago or so, people who worked for a company for a long time got a set pension. It was retirement money that they could count on. Now companies have divested themselves of that responsibility and set up 401 (k)s that may or may not pay off in the long run as it shifts responsiblity to the individual investor.
401Ks are merely an extra investment avenue that allows great sums of money to be saved for retirement. There are certain incentives and restrictions placed on this account, but it is in no way a sham. It is merely a completely different investment vehicle than many of the others that exist.