EBRI Issue Brief

The Changing Face of Private Retirement Plans

Apr 1, 2001 24  pages


  • A rapidly growing public policy concern facing the United States is whether future generations of retired Americans, particularly those in the “baby boom” generation, will have adequate retirement incomes. One reason is that Social Security's projected long-term financial shortfall could result in a reduction in the current-law benefit promises made to future generations of retirees. Another reason is that many baby boomers will be retiring with employment-based defined contribution (DC) plans, as opposed to the “traditional” defined benefit (DB) plans that historically have been the predominant source of employer-provided retirement income.
  • These factors are likely to reduce the amount of life annuity benefits that future retirees will receive relative to current retirees, raising questions as to whether other sources of retirement income--such as individual account plans (DC plans and individual retirement accounts, or IRAs)—will make up the difference.
  • This Issue Brief highlights the changes in private pension plan participation for DB and DC plans and provides some possible explanations for these changes. Results are presented from the Employee Benefit Research Institute's (EBRI) Retirement Income Projection Model that quantify how much the importance of individual account plans is expected to increase because of these changes. This Issue Brief also discusses the risk of outliving one's assets, since a greater fraction of pension wealth is projected to come from “nonguaranteed” sources.
  • Results of the model are compared by gender for cohorts born between 1936 and 1964 in order to estimate the percentage of retirees' retirement wealth that will be derived from DB plans versus DC plans and IRAs over the next three decades. Under the model's baseline assumptions, both males and females are found to have an appreciable drop in the percentage of private retirement income that is attributable to defined benefit plans (other than cash balance plans). In addition, results show a clear increase in the income retirees will receive that will have to be managed by the retiree. This makes the risk of longevity more central to retirees' expenditure decisions.
  • The implications of these model results for retirees are significant. First, individuals—rather than the pension plan sponsor—increasingly will have to manage their retirement assets and bear the risk of investment losses. Second, since most retirees' non-Social Security retirement income will be distributed as a lump sum or in periodic payements (from a defined contribution plan or IRA) rather than as a regular paycheck for life (from a defined benefit plan), retirees will need either to purchase an annuity from an insurance company or carefully manage their individual rate of spending in order to avoid outliving their assets.