The Disappearing Defined Benefit Pension and Its Potential Impact on the Retirement Incomes of Baby Boomers

The Dynamic Effects of Participation Changes in Defined Benefit and Defined Contribution Plans

Buried within the ‘analysis caves’ of the U.S. Social Security Administration is a report indicating greater lost family income for last-wave boomers born from 1961 through 1965 than for those born from 1946 through 1950. This is because younger boomers are more likely to have their defined benefit (DB) pensions frozen with relatively little job tenure.

“The percentage of workers covered by a traditional defined benefit (DB) pension plan that pays a lifetime annuity, often based on years of service and final salary, has been steadily declining over the past 25 years. From 1980 through 2008, the proportion of private wage and salary workers participating in DB pension plans fell from 38 percent to 20 percent (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2008; Department of Labor 2002). In contrast, the percentage of workers covered by a defined contribution (DC) pension plan—that is, an investment account established and often subsidized by employers, but owned and controlled by employees—has been increasing over time. From 1980 through 2008, the proportion of private wage and salary workers participating in only DC pension plans increased from 8 percent to 31 percent (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2008; Department of Labor 2002). More recently, many employers have frozen their DB plans (Government Accountability Office 2008; Munnell and others 2006). Some experts expect that most private-sector plans will be frozen in the next few years and eventually terminated (Aglira 2006; Gebhardtsbauer 2006; McKinsey & Company 2007). Under the typical DB plan freeze, current participants will receive retirement benefits based on their accruals up to the date of the freeze, but will not accumulate any additional benefits; new employees will not be covered. Instead, employers will either establish new DC plans or increase contributions to existing DC plans.

These trends threaten to shake up the American retirement system as we know it because of vast differences between DB and DC pension plans, including differences in coverage rates within a firm, timing of accruals, investment and labor market risks, forms of payout, and effects on work incentives and labor mobility. DB pensions are tied to employers who, consequently, bear the responsibility for ensuring that employees receive pension benefits. In contrast, DC retirement assets are owned by employees who, therefore, bear the responsibility for their own financial security.

This article simulates how the shift from DB to DC pensions might affect the distribution of retirement income among boomers under two different pension scenarios: one that maintains current DB pensions, and one that freezes all remaining DB plans in addition to a third of all state and local plans over the next 5 years. The analysis uses the Social Security Administration’s (SSA‘s) Modeling Income in the Near Term (MINT) microsimulation model to describe the potential impact of the pension shift on boomers at age 67. The article examines both changes in retirement income and the numbers of winners and losers, and it compares these outcomes among individuals grouped by sex, educational attainment, marital status, race/ethnicity, years of paid employment, and quintiles of lifetime earnings and retirement income. Of principal concern is whether income from increased DC plan coverage will compensate for the loss of DB plan benefits.

The decline in family income would be much larger for last-wave boomers born from 1961 through 1965 than for those born from 1946 through 1950, because younger boomers are more likely to have their DB pensions frozen with relatively little job tenure. Higher DC accruals would raise retirement incomes for some families by more than their lost DB benefits. But about 26 percent of last-wave boomers would have lower family incomes at age 67, and only 11 percent would see their income increase.”

The Winners and Losers

The above conclusions are depicted in the following table. In order to understand the table the following definition is helpful:

The “baseline scenario” represents the pension structure in the United States, including known pension plan freezes as of the end of 2006.12 It maintains current employer plans, but permits DB and DC coverage to evolve over time with changes in the composition of employment and in factors influencing workers’ DC plan participation and contribution rates. The alternative scenario, which we refer to as the “U.K. scenario” uses the same methodology as the MINT baseline pension scenario, but assumes that all private-sector DBpensions and a third of public-sector DB pensions will be frozen with no further benefit accruals (hard freeze) within 5 years.
 
Table 7. Percent of individuals who win and lose at age 67 between the baseline and U.K. scenarios, by selected characteristics
Characteristic Winners Losers
First boomers (1946–1950) Second boomers (1951–1955) Third boomers (1956–1960) Last boomers (1961–1965) First boomers (1946–1950) Second boomers (1951–1955) Third boomers (1956–1960) Last boomers (1961–1965)
All 7 8 9 11 12 18 22 26
Sex
Women 6 7 9 10 10 17 21 25
Men 9 9 10 12 14 20 23 27
Marital status
Never married 4 4 6 7 6 14 17 20
Married 9 9 11 13 13 20 24 28
Widowed 4 5 7 9 8 14 16 22
Divorced 5 5 7 8 9 14 18 24
Race/ethnicity
Non-Hispanic white 8 8 10 11 13 20 24 28
Non-Hispanic black 5 6 8 10 10 16 18 22
Hispanic 5 6 7 9 8 11 17 18
Other 5 7 9 9 10 14 15 23
Education
High school dropout 3 4 5 6 6 8 11 14
High school graduate 7 8 9 11 12 18 21 24
College graduate 10 9 11 12 15 22 28 34
Labor force experience
Less than 20 years 2 2 3 4 3 5 6 9
20 to 29 years 4 7 7 9 5 9 14 16
30 or more years 9 9 11 12 14 21 25 30
Shared lifetime earnings
Bottom quintile 1 2 4 6 2 4 6 9
2nd quintile 5 7 8 10 8 12 15 21
3rd quintile 8 9 10 12 13 19 23 26
4th quintile 10 10 12 13 16 25 28 30
Top quintile 13 11 12 13 20 31 37 44
Income quintile
Bottom quintile 1 2 4 6 2 3 6 8
2nd quintile 5 8 8 10 6 11 15 19
3rd quintile 7 10 10 12 13 19 23 25
4th quintile 11 9 12 13 18 26 29 30
Top quintile 13 11 12 12 20 32 38 48
SOURCE: Authors’ computations of MINT5 (see text for details).
NOTE: Projections exclude individuals with family wealth in the top 5 percent of the distribution. Shared lifetime earnings is the average of wage-indexed shared earnings between ages 22 and 62, where shared earnings are computed by assigning each individual half the total earnings of the couple in the years when the individual is married and his or her own earnings in years when nonmarried. Winners and losers are defined as having at least a $10 change in income between the baseline and U.K. scenarios.

Reference

Butrica, Barbara A., Iams, Howard M., Smith, Karen E., & Toder, Eric J. (2009). The Disappearing Defined Benefit Pension and Its Potential Impact on the Retirement Incomes of Baby BoomersSocial Security BulletinVol. 69 No. 3.

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