Women’s History Month: A Time to Reflect on Women’s Retirement Challenges

As we observe Women’s History Month, themed, “Nevertheless, She Persisted,” there are things to celebrate when it comes to women’s potential retirement security. Women participate in DC plans at a higher rate than men at every income level, and their contribution rates are higher, too. Further, when controlling for income, women save more in DC plans and have higher balances.

Of course, because of differences in the wages of men and women, in the aggregate, men have retirement account balances that are more than 50% larger than women’s.¹ And women’s longevity can also present retirement savings challenges. The typical woman can expect to outlive her male counterpart by five years (age 76 versus 81).² This carries financial ramifications. As WISER (Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement) points out in its Impact of Retirement Risk on Women report, because women live so long, they are:

  •  More likely to spend longer periods of time in a state of chronic disability
  •  Less likely to have a spouse-caretaker

In other words, not only are women likely to need to fund a longer retirement, they may also need to fund higher out-of-pocket health care costs in retirement as well.

An upcoming EBRI Issue Brief explores how much women are paying in out-of-pocket medical expenses in retirement compared to men, using actual reported medical expense of older individuals from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS).³

The data show that for those dying between ages 70 and 74, there is a less than 1 percentage point difference between men and women when it comes to their chances of entering a nursing home. However, the situation changes dramatically for the very long lived. Indeed, for those dying at the age of 95 or later, women are 13.5 percentage points more likely to enter a nursing home than men.

Once in a nursing home, expenses can be significantly higher for these older women than for their male counterparts. On average, the longest-lived women pay 44 percent more in cumulative out-of-pocket nursing home expenses than men ($75,310 vs. $52,365). At the extreme end of the distribution (the 95th percentile), that differential increases to 61 percent ($281,426 for women and $175,216 for men).

Again, the most likely explanation for this is that women live longer, are more likely to be single late in life, and often don’t benefit from spouses or partners as caregivers the way men may. This may hasten women’s entry into nursing homes as well as increase their length of stay once there. In fact, the evidence is that women are more likely to need more financial resources than men to meet their health care expenses during retirement, especially in cases where women outlive their caregiving spouse or partner.

So how does this translate into women’s confidence in being able to retire comfortably? In the 2017 Retirement Confidence Survey the Employee Benefit Research Institute finds only small differences between how women and men rate their confidence when it comes to various aspects of retirement income adequacy. For example,

  • Sixty-two percent of men are confident about having sufficient money to live comfortably throughout their retirement years, versus 59 percent of women.
  • Fifty-seven percent of men believe they will have enough money in retirement to take care of their medical expenses, versus 52 percent of women.
  • Forty-four percent of men think they have enough money in retirement to pay for long-term care expenses, versus 41 percent of women.

However, things change when the sample is broken out by gender and marital status. Not surprisingly, married individuals register more confidence in being able to meet retirement expenses than single individuals. However, while the confidence of married men and women is virtually indistinguishable across the metrics, single men and women diverge materially in their confidence:

  • Two-thirds of both married men and women register confidence in having sufficient money to live comfortably throughout their retirement years; but only 47 percent of single women are confident, compared to 54 percent of single men.
  • Just over 60 percent of married men and women are confident in their ability to shoulder medical expenses in retirement; but only 37 percent of single women are confident compared to 48 percent of single men.
  • Roughly half of married men and women say they believe they will have enough money in retirement to pay for long-term care costs; that compares to 31 percent of single women being confident versus 36 percent of single men.

The results make several things clear: the majority of single women are worried about their ability to sustain themselves in retirement, and this appears to be driven in good part by the specter of potential health care costs. But equally importantly, married women may be underestimating their likelihood of facing some of their retirement years alone—as well as the potential financial consequences.


¹How America Saves – Women versus Men in DC Plans, October 2015
²Population Reference Bureau
³Cumulative Out-of-Pocket Health Care Expenses after the Age of 70


401(k) Plan Leakage and the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 (H. R. 1892) contains several provisions that have potential implications when it comes to 401(k) plan leakage.

Certain provisions could increase plan leakage by making it easier to take hardship withdrawals. Namely, the Budget Act expands the categories of assets that are available for hardship withdrawals to include qualified nonelective contributions, and qualified matching contributions, as well as earnings. Previously, hardship distributions could only come from employees’ own contributions. Further, the Budget Act repeals the requirement to exhaust available plan loans prior to taking a hardship distribution, another provision that makes it easier to take money out of 401(k) plans.

The Budget Act also eliminates the 6-months prohibition against making plan contributions after taking a hardship withdrawal. This could have a mixed effect on leakage from 401(k) plans—potentially encouraging more hardship withdrawals, while at the same time reducing the amount of required forgone saving.

The Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) addressed the topic of 401(k) plan leakage in testimony before the U.S. Department of Labor ERISA Advisory Council in a hearing on Lifetime Participation in Plans. EBRI’s analysis showed the impact of plan leakage over a full career for workers seeking to replace at least 80 percent of their inflation-adjusted income in retirement from a combination of Social Security and 401(k) balances (as well as IRA rollovers originating in 401(k) plans). It found that nearly 1-in-10 (8.8 percent) fewer low-income workers who are currently ages 25-29 are projected to reach retirement “success” (the 80 percent replacement threshold) when auto enrolled in 401(k) plans where leakage such as loan defaults, withdrawals, and cashouts is present. Put another way, 27.3 percent more full-career low-income participants would reach retirement success if plan leakage was eliminated. Between 18 percent and 23 percent more full-career middle-income workers would reach retirement success without such plan leakage.

The analysis further showed that in terms of impact, leakage from hardship withdrawals with a six-month suspension of contributions ranked well below the impact of leakage due to cashouts at job change, but ahead of the impact of leakage due to loan defaults. The projected percentage of low-wage workers achieving retirement success over a full career would increase by 4 percent if loan defaults were eliminated, by 8 percent if hardship withdrawals with a six-month suspension were eliminated, but by 20 percent if cashouts at job change were eliminated.

The testimony pointed out that research has shown that traditionally, participants in 401(k) plans with accessibility features such as loans have higher contribution rates than those without such access. Future research may wish to explore how the presence of automatic enrollment and automatic contribution escalation in 401(k) plans affects such trade-offs.


White House Conference on Aging: July 13

logo-WHCOA2015The decennial White House Conference on Aging will be held in Washington Monday, July 13, and is being live-streamed over the Internet.

The White House conference has been held each decade since the 1960s to identify and advance actions to improve the quality of life of older Americans. The 2015 White House Conference on Aging is an opportunity to look ahead to the issues that will help shape the landscape for older Americans for the next decade.

A series of regional conferences have been held around the country in recent months to generate input and feedback from Americans about how to shape the aging policy landscape, leading up the White House event next week. The July 13, 2015 White House Conference on Aging marks the 50th anniversary of Medicare, Medicaid, and the Older Americans Act, as well as the 80th anniversary of Social Security.

For more information, and the link to the live-stream Internet access, see http://www.whitehouseconferenceonaging.gov/

GAO Report on Retirement Savings: Overall Gaps Identified, but the Focus of Retirement Security Reform Should be on the Uncovered Population



By Jack VanDerhei, EBRI

The Government Accountability Office’s new retirement analysis reviewed nine studies conducted between 2006 and 2015 by a variety of organizations and concluded that generally one-third to two-thirds of workers are at risk of falling short of their retirement savings targets.

However, many of these studies use a “replacement rate” standard: Most commonly, this analysis concludes that you need to replace 70–80 percent of your preretirement income to be assured of a successful retirement. This is a convenient metric to use to convey retirement targets to individuals—and no doubt provides useful information to many workers who are attempting to determine whether they are “on-track” with respect to their retirement savings and/or what their future savings rates should be. However, replacement rates are NOT appropriate in large-scale policy models for determining whether an individual will run short of money in retirement. Why?

Because simply setting a target replacement rate at retirement age and suggesting that anyone above that threshold will have a “successful” retirement completely ignores:

  1. Longevity risk.
  2. Post-retirement investment risk.
  3. Long-term care risk.

In fact, looking at just the first two risks above, if you use a replacement rate threshold based on average longevity and average rate of return, you will, in essence, have a savings target that will prove to be insufficient about 50 percent of the time. Of course, this would not be a problem if retirees annuitized all or a large percentage of their defined contribution and IRA balances at retirement age; but the data suggest that only a small percentage of retirees do this.

In contrast, EBRI has been working for the last 14 years to develop a far more inclusive, sophisticated, realistic—and, yes, complex—model that deals with all these risks. It’s our Retirement Security Projection Model® (RSPM), and produces a Retirement Readiness Rating (basically, the probability that a household will NOT run short of money in retirement).

Blog.JV.GAO-rpt.June15.Fig1Our most recent Retirement Readiness Ratings by age are shown in Figure 1 (left). Our baseline results do include long term care costs (the red bars), but we also run the numbers assuming that these costs are NEVER paid by the retirees (the green bars). This latter assumption is not likely to be realistic for many retirees, but we include it to show how important it is to include these costs (unlike many other models).

Even more important is Fig. 2 (right), which shows Retirement Readiness Ratings as a function of preretirement income AND the number of future years of eligibility for a defined contribution plan for Gen Xers.

Blog.JV.GAO-rpt.June15.Fig2Even controlling for the impact of income on the probability of a successful retirement, the number of future years that a Gen Xer works for an employer that sponsors a defined contribution plan will make a tremendous difference in their Retirement Readiness Ratings (even with long-term care costs included).

The evidence from EBRI’s simulation modeling certainly agrees with the GAO that a significant percentage of households will likely run short of money in retirement if coverage is not increased. However this is because we model all the major risks in retirement and do not simply assume some ad-hoc replacement rate threshold.

Moreover, using an aggregate number to portray the percentage of workers at risk for inadequate retirement income is really missing the bigger picture. The retirement security landscape for today’s workers can be bifurcated into those fortunate enough to work for employers that sponsor retirement plans for a majority of their careers vs. those who do not. In general, those who have an employer-sponsored retirement plan for most of their working careers appear to be well on their way to a secure retirement.

Perhaps the focus of any retirement security reform going forward needs to be on those who do not work for employers offering retirement plans and those in the lowest-income quartile.


Jack VanDerhei is research director at the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

Employers Unaware of Full Implications of King vs. Burwell

by Paul Fronstin, EBRI

paul-fronstin-webThe outcome of the King vs. Burwell case before the Supreme Court of the United States has major implications for employers, workers, and employment-based health benefits.

See Paul Fronstin’s latest post on the topic online here, which kicks off a new series on Mercer/Signal: US Health Care Reform.

ERISA’s 40th Birthday—Private Plan Performance



By Dallas Salisbury, EBRI

This week marks the 40th Labor Day since President Ford signed the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 into law. ERISA has been amended many times since then—as have Internal Revenue Code provisions that relate to ERISA-covered employee benefit plans. Private-sector regulatory change has come as well, via the Financial Accounting Standards Board. The U.S. and global economies, trade and employment have changed continuously over this 40 years, as has the general societal view of individual responsibility

I will leave to others conclusions on why things have gone as they have, but will provide four data pictures of the 40 years of ERISA—and by coincidence, my entire career in the benefits world—which has revolved around ERISA and employee benefits.

Chart 1

Chart 1

Chart 1 shows income sources in 1975 as reported by the Current Population Survey. Many describe the 70’s and earlier as the “good old days” for retirement: 25% of those over 65 in 1975 reported pension income. Some had both private and public pension income, with 16.9% reporting private pension income and 8.2% reporting public pension income. A central intent of ERISA was to increase the number of workers who would have private pension income in the future.

This was to be accomplished with new standards for retirement plan participation and vesting that would increase the number of plans in which workers would participate, and to increase the number of workers who would gain a non-forfeitable right to a benefit. Chart 2 shows that sponsorship has steadily increased, that participation as a percent of all workers has not, but that the increase in workers with non-forfeitable benefit rights has been achieved.

Chart 2

Chart 2

Research undertaken by EBRI since 1978 documents the change. Today our unique databases and our Retirement Security Projection Model® and the EBRI Retirement Readiness Rating™ it produces indicate that the financial well-being delivered by the voluntary private-sector system will continue to provide significant supplementation to Social Security  in the decades ahead (unless legislative or regulatory changes or economic changes that cannot be predicted tear things apart).

Why have the ERISA (and amendments) vesting rules made such a difference? Because of short job tenure: Most U.S workers have never worked long careers with one employer (or in one industry that might have a multi-employer plan). Chart 3 shows that median labor force tenure has changed little for workers under the age of 44 over the life of ERISA. It has shortened a bit more for workers 46‒54, and significantly for workers 55‒64, such that the vesting standards in ERISA have been exceedingly important.

Chart 3

Chart 3

Chart 4 shows from 1983 forward (data collection has become more robust over time), that among public- and private-sector workers 45-64 the percentage with 25 or more years of tenure in both sectors is quite low, with nearly 4/5ths of the population experiencing tenures that are less than a “full career” with one employer. Data in Chart 5 on long tenure can be examined by sector, and shows that public-sector workers have significantly more full careers with one employer than is true in the private sector.

Chart 4

Chart 4

ERISA at 40—What we know as facts is that:

♦ There are about 700,000 plans today as compared to 300,000 when ERISA was enacted.

♦ The proportion of workers who are active retirement plan participants has increased from under 40 million to over 85 million, and that it is about the same proportion of the workforce as it was in 1975.

♦ The proportion of participants gaining vested benefits has more than doubled, as vesting periods have grown shorter, with 46% of workers participating and 43% of workers having vested rights.

♦ We know that total plan assets, average plan assets by various demographics, the proportion of those over 65 with income and/or accumulated wealth that is attributable to their prior vested participation in ERISA plans has grown every year. And it continues to grow, according to data from the IRS, the Federal Reserve, the Department of Commerce Income and Product Accounts, the Department of Commerce Bureau of the Census, and administrative data of plans themselves.

♦ And we know that the PBGC is paying benefits to millions of retirees because this ERISA-created agency exists.

Chart 5

Chart 5

There is no way to know where we would be had ERISA never been enacted, but data clearly tells us where we were and where we are.

These advancements in the financial well-being of retirees and future retirees are the legacy of a voluntary system that has flexed with changes in the economy, with workforce changes, working alongside Social Security, and other in-kind income and benefit programs from the government, and from other voluntary programs. OECD, World Bank, and other international comparisons document that the post-ERISA U.S. system is one of the best-funded and most stable in the world, when judged against voluntary programs working in combination with annuity-paying public social insurance programs elsewhere. Comparisons to other nations with only mandatory programs produce a less favorable picture when looking at the issue of retirement narrowly, but looking more broadly at the overall economic state of nations and populations, the U.S. retirement system certainly ranks near the top of the heap.

Younger persons than I will have to write about ERISA at 80, but I hope to still be writing about it at 50 and 60. If I live a year longer than my parents, I will even write a perspective in 2044, as I celebrate the beginning of my 95th year—and ERISA marks birthday 70. Stay tuned.

Note: To read more about ERISA at 40, see this PlanSponsor interview, online here.


A Futurist Past



By Dallas Salisbury, EBRI

At EBRI’s 35th anniversary policy forum last December, it occurred to me that one of the youngest minds in the room happened to belong to the oldest panelist we had invited. Arnold Brown, 87 when he spoke at our forum, was nationally renowned not only for his insightful observations about the future, but his often surprising predictions of how the American labor force—and the employment-based benefits on which they depend—might change in response. How fitting that the forum panel on which he participated was titled “The Road to Tomorrow.”¹

So I was especially saddened to hear of his recent passing, shortly before his 88th birthday. He died surrounded by family, who described him as “brilliant, witty, wise and generous.” Having followed him and his work closely in my own career, I would agree with all that and more.

At a time when news reports warn of the “technological divide” between the young and the old in this country, Brown’s specialty was using hard data to help us understand why and how technology is changing our lives. Ironically for a tech-head, he started out as an English major (he graduated with honors from UCLA), before going on to serve in the Navy.

Arnold Brown

Arnold Brown

His big break on the national stage came when he was vice-chairman of the American Council of Life Insurers, where in 1969 he created ACLI’s Trend Analysis Program. This was the first, and considered among the best, “environmental scanning programs” that focused on long-range business planning and strategy. In 1977, he formed his own company, Weiner, Edrich, Brown, Inc., consultants in strategic planning and the management of change, where many of the biggest companies in the world would become clients. Not surprisingly, he served as board chairman of the World Future Society.

Much of his recent work focused on the trend toward “deskilled workers,” as more and more employers turn to computers, software, and robots to replace both blue-collar and white-collar human employees. He pointed out the many ripple effects that is already having and will have going forward, especially on state and federal social insurance programs that depend on taxes drawn from employment payrolls to survive. As workers are increasingly replaced by robots, Brown asked at the EBRI forum, “Should we require employers of robots to pay Social Security for them?”

Among his other thought-provoking, data-driven points at the EBRI forum:

  • The prolonged recession has masked what he called a “profound transformation of the economy” driven by automation, one that has to do with the very nature of work and jobs as the nation moves into the future. In 2012, he noted, approximately 85 percent of robots were purchased were for manufacturing purposes, and within the next few years 30 percent or more of robots will be for non-manufacturing, white-collar use.
  • Part-time, contract, and temporary workers are becoming the norm worldwide. Brown noted that in France in 2012, 82 percent of the new jobs created were temporary, and in Germany, what are referred to as “mini jobs” (low-paid, short-term jobs) now comprise 20 percent of all jobs in that economy. Another aspect of this job trend: Of the 16-to-25-year-old cohort not currently in school, barely a third (36 percent) have full-time jobs, and a major reason for this is new technology (such as 3-D printing), he said.
  • The upshot is that “The old model of the contract between employer and employee is increasingly obsolete,” Brown said at the EBRI forum, and “more and more, we will need a new model of what the relationship will be between the employer and the employee.” Over the next 35 years, he predicted, there will evolve “an entirely different, unprecedented relationship in the workplace between employers and employees, and what the consequences of that will be are really very profound in terms of what your businesses will be facing.”

Professionally, I greatly admired his acute use of data to make highly informed analysis about the future. Personally, I deeply admired how someone almost in his 90s lived so much in the future.

In Washington, there is naturally great attention given to how federal law (particularly tax law) and regulation affect business and employee benefits. But Arnold Brown’s focus was elsewhere: How the economy—and the underlying technology and skills that drive it—affect not only the business world, but society as a whole, faster and far more powerfully than even government policy.

His keen mind and often accurate predictions will be missed.


¹ The complete report on the EBRI 35th anniversary policy forum, “Employee Benefits: Today, Tomorrow, and Yesterday,” is published in the July EBRI Issue Brief and is online here.