EBRI Issue Brief

Retirement Plan Participation and the Current Population Survey: The Trends From the Retirement Account Questions

Nov 30, 2023 23  pages


The data provided by the March Current Population Survey (CPS) are important, as they are the most current annual data on retirement plan participation on a worker-level basis. Because the data are at the worker level, as opposed to the employer level, it is possible to determine differences in retirement plan participation by many worker characteristics. This shows which cohorts of workers are most likely to face challenges when it comes to having adequate income in retirement.

However, the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) has noted since the 2014 redesign of the CPS that its estimates have not been consistent with other data sources — the CPS estimates have been much lower and have trended downward. This has led EBRI to question any conclusions about trends in retirement plan participation using the CPS.

Beginning with the 2019 survey, the CPS added several variables relating to retirement accounts. These variables allow for additional information on retirement plan participation by providing supplemental questions on if an individual has a retirement account through an employer or union.

This Issue Brief examines the trends in retirement plan participation using the traditional pension questions from the CPS while looking at the impact of the new variables on the retirement account questions. When adjustments using these new variables are made to the estimates from the traditional questions, the CPS numbers much more closely match other sources on retirement plan participation:

  • Starting with the estimates of the percentage of workers participating in an employment-based retirement plan before the redesigned questionnaire from the 2014 CPS (2013 results), the percentage participating generally declined for each work force definition studied. In 2018, it stood at 31.6 percent for all workers compared with 39.7 percent in 2011, prior to the redesign. However, when adjustments were made for the new questions in 2018, the percentage participating increased to 47.5 percent for all workers. Using these same adjustments for 2019–2022, this percentage remained around 48 percent, resting at 48.9 percent in 2022.
  • These estimates using the new questions more closely match numbers from other data sources, such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ National Compensation Survey and Statistics of Income data from the Internal Revenue Service. Thus, taking advantage of the depth of worker demographics in the CPS to provide better insights into who does and does not participate in an employment-based plan can be done with more confidence.
  • The new estimates still show that there are gaps in participation by income, race/ethnicity, and employer size along with educational attainment, work status, and age. For example, 53.6 percent of Black full-time, full-year workers participated in a plan in 2022 compared with 67.3 percent of White full-time, full-year workers. Likewise, 25.3 percent of these workers working for employers with fewer than 10 employees participated vs. 72.1 percent of workers of employers with 1,000 or more employees.
Now that the CPS has had both the traditional and new retirement account questions from 2019–2023, it appears a new baseline for participation that more closely matches other sources can be used to see how retirement plan participation has changed across numerous worker demographic characteristics.