“Half” Measures?

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Nevin Adams

People are often grouped into one of two camps: the optimists, who generally see the glass as half-full, and the pessimists, and who are said to view the glass as half-empty.

One of the most commonly cited data points about retirement is that “only about half of working Americans are covered by a workplace retirement plan.” Drawn from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS), it’s cited by both those who see the current system as inadequate (or worse), as well as its most ardent champions—in other words, both by those who see the glass as half-full, and those who are inclined to see it as half-empty.

This is a data point that we’ve written about before, and one that was acknowledged in a recent EBRI Issue Brief[1] that explored various demographic and economic factors that affect retirement plan participation. The data point is relatively simple math: the number of workers who say they participated in a workplace retirement plan divided by the total number of workers. But when you take a closer look at the numbers, it’s not really that straightforward—especially since there are various types of workers, and that makes a huge difference in retirement coverage.

Consider that, according to that CPS data, in 2012, a total of 80.5 million workers worked for an employer/union that did not sponsor a retirement plan. However, the EBRI analysis reveals that of the wage and salary workers in this group:

  • 8.9 million were self-employed—and thus ostensibly could have started a plan on their own without the action of an employer.
  • 6.4 million were under age 21—below ERISA’s minimum-age coverage limit.
  • 4.3 million were age 65 or older—beyond what many (and most retirement plans) still consider “normal” retirement age.
  • 32.6 million were not full-time, full-year workers—also not required to be covered by a workplace retirement plan under ERISA.
  • 17.0 million had annual earnings of less than $10,000.

Now, many of these workers fell into several of these categories simultaneously, such as being under age 21, having less than $10,000 in annual earnings, and not being full-time, full-year workers. So, as the EBRI analysis explains, once you apply certain commonsense filters for age, annual earnings, work status, and/or employer size, you can get a more realistic perspective.

If you consider the population of wage and salary workers ages 21–64 who work full-year, make $5,000 or more in annual earnings, and work for employers with 10 or more employees, 32.5 million—or 36.4 percent of this population—worked for an employer that did not sponsor a retirement plan in 2012.

Said another way, nearly two-thirds of workers with those characteristics worked for an employer that DID sponsor a retirement plan in 2012. Either way, the population of workers who don’t have access to a workplace retirement plan who might reasonably be expected to participate is considerably different than the simplistic assessment offered by the commonly cited “less than half” data point.

Different people can look at the same data and draw different conclusions: some are inclined to see the glass as “half full,” others look at the same results and say it’s “half empty.”

But none of that matters if you’re looking at the wrong size glass.


[1] The November EBRI Issue Brief, “Employment-Based Retirement Plan Participation: Geographic Differences and Trends, 2012” is available online here.

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President and CEO, EBRI

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