Surface Conditions

Nevin AdamsBy Nevin Adams, EBRI

Our first home was in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago, a split-level (my wife’s preference), walking distance to the commuter train (my preference), and within our stipulated price range (“our” preference).  Much as we liked the house, we were not the first owners, and there were certain things we wanted to “fix.”  The first of these was the family room, where we figured to spend a lot of our time and which the previous residents had seen fit to line with pine paneling.  Our plan was to take down that paneling and replace it with wallpaper, to modernize and “open up” the room.

My previous experience with wallpapering was limited; in this case my job (as I understood it from my wife) was to take the lead in pulling down the paneling, and then to pretty much stand back and learn.  As I pulled back that first strip of paneling, I was nearly blinded by a flash of orange…which was from what turned out to be a misbegotten shade of 1970s floral print wallpaper which lay underneath the paneling.  “No problem,” my wife assured me; in fact, this might actually work to our benefit, she said, in that it implied that the previous owners would have treated the wall before putting up that paper.

Well, after 15 minutes of struggling to separate the paper from what lay beneath it, it was clear that they had NOT done so.  Moreover, one of the previous owners had apparently pasted the orange floral print over ANOTHER wallpaper, this one some hideous lime green.  Nor, as it turned out, was that the last of the layers (we stopped counting at six).  While we had made what we thought were reasonable conclusions about the size of the project based on the topline evidence, it was now clear that more—much more—was going on underneath (and apparently had been for some time).  Fortunately, we discovered that reality before I had ripped down so much paneling that we were committed to that course of action.

A growing concern for employers, workers, and policymakers alike is the changing composition of the American workforce and what that might mean for benefit plan designs, succession planning, and workforce management.

A recent EBRI Notes article examining the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data on labor-force participation notes that the labor-force participation rates of younger workers increased when those of older workers declined or remained low during the late 1970s to the early 1990s; and while both increased for a period of time in the latter half of the 1990s, as the labor-force participation rates of younger workers began to decline in the late 1990s, the rates for the older workers continuously increased.  The report explains that, in 1997, workers ages 25–54 accounted for 83.9 percent of all workers ages 25 or older, while those ages 55–64 accounted for 12.0 percent, and those ages 65 or older, 4.1 percent.  However, by 2012, the fraction of older workers expanded; those ages 55–64 represented nearly 1 in 5 workers, while those 65 or older constituted 7.0 percent of the labor force.  Meanwhile, the percentage of workers 25 or older represented by those ages 25–54 slipped to 73.8 percent.

However, a closer examination of trends within the group ages 55 and older reveals some additional patterns of interest.  For those ages 55–64, the upward trend in the 1990s and into the 2000s was driven almost exclusively by the increased work force participation of women, while the male participation rate was flat to declining.  That is, until you look at the rate for those ages 65 or older, where the EBRI analysis shows that labor-force participation increased for both males and females over that period.

So, while it’s not clear whether older workers are filling a workforce gap or closing off opportunities for younger workers, older workers— notably older female workers— are certainly more plentiful in the labor force today, with potential workforce planning implications.

Ultimately, of course, it’s important to know what the numbers are and to examine the trends those numbers suggest over time.  However, and as the EBRI analysis reveals, sometimes you can’t fully understand the topline trends—and shouldn’t commit to a course of action—without first knowing what’s underneath.

  • Notes

The April EBRI Notes article “Labor-force Participation Rates of the Population Ages 55 and Older, 2013” is available online HERE.

Myth Understandings

Nevin AdamsBy Nevin Adams, EBRI

A frequent criticism of the 401(k) design is that it was “never designed” to provide a full retirement benefit, unlike, as it’s often stated or implied, the defined benefit plan.

Moreover, while there is a very real tendency to focus on the CURRENT balance[i] in a defined contribution/401(k) plan and treat that as the ultimate outcome, for reasons I’ve never really been able to understand, people tend to think and talk about defined benefit (DB) plans in terms of the benefit they are capable of providing, rather than the actual benefits paid.

However, the data show that some of the common assumptions about defined benefit pensions are out of line with the realities, including:

Once upon a time, everybody had a pension.

“Coverage” is a hot topic among policymakers these days, or more accurately, the lack of it. One of the most frequently invoked criticisms of the current system is that so many American workers don’t have access to a retirement plan at work. But in 1979, only 28 percent of private-sector workers participated in a DB plan, with another 10 percent participating in both a DB and defined contribution (DC) plan. By any measure, that’s a long way from “everybody.”

The reality is that more private-sector workers are participating in a workplace retirement plan today than in 1979.

People used to work for the same employer their whole careers.

My kids think their generation is the first to anticipate having many employers during their careers, but the reality is that American workers, certainly in the private sector, have long been relatively mobile in the workforce. Median job tenure of the total workforce has hovered at about five years since the early 1950s (in fact, as EBRI’s latest research points out, the average median job tenure has now risen, to 5.4 years).[ii] The data on employee tenure—the amount of time an individual has been with his or her current employer—show that career jobs never existed for most workers and have continued not to exist for most workers.

And that has implications for pension benefits.

Everybody who had a pension got a full benefit.

Those who know how defined benefit plan accrual formulas work understand that the actual benefit is a function of some definition of average pay and years of service. Moreover, prior to the mid-1980s, 10-year cliff vesting schedules were common for DB plans. What that meant was that if you worked for an employer fewer than 10 years, you’d be entitled to a pension of … $0.00.

As noted above, the American workforce has, since the end of World War II, been relatively, and consistently, mobile. Between 1987 and 2012, among private-sector workers, fewer than 1 in 5 have spent 25 years or more with one employer. Under pension accrual formulas, those kinds of numbers meant that, even among the workers who were covered by a traditional pension, many would actually receive little or nothing from that plan design.

And that’s for those who were covered in the first place[iii].

People used to get more retirement income from pensions than they do today.

There are undoubtedly different challenges ahead for retirees than for prior generations – longer lives, higher health care costs, the pressures of affording long-term care – but when it comes to sources of retirement income for those over the age of 65, there has been remarkably little change over the past several decades.

Social Security is and has been a consistent source, representing somewhere between 40 and 45 percent of aggregate income (excluding non-periodic distributions from DC plans and IRAs) during most of that time, and into the current time, according to data from the Census Bureau. Pension annuity income, which constituted about 16 percent of aggregate income in 1976, rose to as high as 21 percent in the early ’90s – about where it stands today.

There’s no question that some Americans in the private sector have derived, and will continue to derive, significant retirement income from DB plans, and DB plans did and can deliver for the portion of the population that does stay with one employer/plan for a full career[iv].

The data show, however, that many Americans were not covered by those plans, even in the “good old days,” and that even many of those who were covered, for a time anyway, were not likely to receive the full benefit that the design was capable of delivering because they didn’t have, or take advantage of, the opportunity.

Sound familiar?

Notes

[i] Worse, that 401(k) balance is frequently an AVERAGE 401(k) balance, which includes the relatively small balances of those who have just started saving with those who have had a full career to save. That’s why reports from the EBRI/ICI 401(k) database have long differentiated average and median balances by age and tenure. See “401(k) Plan Asset Allocation, Account Balances, and Loan Activity in 2012.”

[ii] See “Employee Tenure Trends, 1983–2012.”

[iii] Expectations for pension benefits appear to exceed the reality, even among workers. The 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey found that while 56 percent of workers expect to receive benefits from a defined benefit plan in retirement, only 31 percent report that they and/or their spouse currently have such a benefit with a current or previous employer. See here

 [iv] For an analysis of possible outcomes from DB and 401(k) plans, see “Reality Checks: A Comparative Analysis of Future Benefits from Private-Sector, Voluntary-Enrollment 401(k) Plans vs. Stylized, Final-Average-Pay Defined Benefit and Cash Balance Plans.”

 

Work “Forces”

Nevin AdamsBy Nevin Adams, EBRI

A couple of years ago, my wife and I sat down with an advisor to revisit our financial plan.  Having gathered all the requisite information regarding assets, debt, insurance, and retirement savings, he turned to me and asked how long I planned to work.

Being in a profession that I not only enjoy, but one relatively unbounded by physical constraints; having some appreciation for the various financial trade-offs associated with the decision to retire, yet desirous of the ability to have more leisure time with my family—conscious of the fact that I have made a career studying and writing about such decisions—I paused to reflect….

And then my wife, with a smile on her face, laughed and said, “Oh, he’s going to work forever!”

Well, that wasn’t the answer I had in mind, but apparently I’m not the only one rethinking retirement.  In 1991, just 11 percent of workers expected to retire after age 65, according to the Retirement Confidence Survey (RCS)[i]. Twenty-three years later, in 2014, 33 percent of workers report that they expect to retire after age 65, and 10 percent don’t plan to retire at all. At the same time, the percentage of workers expecting to retire before age 65 has decreased, from 50 percent in 1991 to 27 percent.  Those expectations notwithstanding, the median (midpoint) age at which workers expect to retire has remained stable at 65 for most of the 24-year history of the RCS.

Moreover, a recent EBRI Notes article[ii] confirms that the labor-force participation rate for those ages 55 and older rose throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s when it began to level off, but with a small increase following the 2007-2008 economic downturn.  While for those ages 55-64 the upward trend was driven almost exclusively by the increased labor-force participation of women, among those age 65 or older, the rate increased for both males and females over that period.

The report notes, however, that the labor-force participation rates of younger workers increased when those of older workers declined or remained low during the late 1970s to the early 1990s, but as the labor-force participation rates of younger workers began to decline in the late 1990s, the rates for the older workers continuously increased – suggesting either that older workers filled the void left by younger workers’ lower participation, or that the higher representation in the workforce by older workers served to limit the opportunities for younger workers, either directly or perhaps by discouraging them from pursuing employment.

As the EBRI report notes, this upward trend in labor-force participation by older workers is perhaps related to workers’ desire for continued access to employment-based health insurance, to provide some additional years of employment to accumulate savings and/or pay down debt, or maybe even simply because they want to work.

Whatever their motivation(s), these trends highlight a number of key concerns for employers and policy makers: Will workers who want—or need—to increase their financial resources by working longer be able to find jobs?  How might workforce management (and health care costs) be affected by those decisions?  What could delayed workforce entry mean to the retirement savings accumulations of younger workers?

Ultimately, of course, and as the trends tracked and analyzed by EBRI have long indicated, the road through retirement is often influenced by the paths we take to retirement—and when, how, and if we are able to make the transition.

  • Notes

[i] See “The 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey: Confidence Rebounds—for Those With Retirement Plans.”

[ii] The April EBRI Notes article, “Labor-force Participation Rates of the Population Ages 55 and Older, 2013,” is available online here.

 

“Crisis” Management

Nevin AdamsBy Nevin Adams, EBRI

“Houston, we have a problem.”

That’s perhaps the most famous quote from one of my favorite movies—the 1995 “Apollo 13,” the story of the ill-fated moon landing mission of the same name. As the third such undertaking, it was a mission that the nation largely ignored—until that mission ran into trouble. Trouble in this case meant having an oxygen tank explode two days into their trip to the moon, which led to a reduction in power, loss of heat in the cabin, a shortage of drinkable water, and ultimately the need to jury-rig the system that removed carbon dioxide from the cabin. Arguably, Apollo 13 didn’t have a “problem”; they had a crisis, and one that threatened their very lives.

While we’re a few years removed from the financial crisis that led to the so-called Great Recession, “crisis” is a word much bandied about these days. Crisis is, after all, one of those descriptors that cry out for swift and decisive action—and the industry of employee benefits has its fair share. Thus, whether it’s the looming retirement crisis some see (or see for some) on the horizon, the crippling impact of college debt on the finances (and future financial security) of younger Americans, or the health care crisis that the ACA was designed to forestall (or that some say is destined to create), we are all challenged and confronted—by those at nearly every point along the political spectrum—with the urgency of the need to address the “crisis.”

But do these circumstances constitute a “crisis”? A review of the dictionary definition of crisis reveals the following perspectives: “A crucial or decisive point or situation; a turning point”; an “unstable condition, as in political, social, or economic affairs, involving an impending abrupt or decisive change”; a “sudden change in the course of a disease or fever, toward either improvement or deterioration.”

On May 15, the Employee Benefit Research Institute will host its 74th Policy Forum, titled “‘Crisis’ Management: Uncertainty and the Workplace.” We’ll examine the current and projected future state of retirement readiness, employment-based health care, and the role that approaches such as financial wellness can play in alleviating the strains of uncertainty.

It promises to be an interesting and insightful discussion—one that you can expect to learn from and profit by participating, whether you’re looking for ideas to help stave off a systemic crisis, to better understand the current and future environment of employment-based benefits and the policies that could have an influence, or for ways to improve the current system(s).

It may or may not be a crisis—but these are topics whose resolution could well affect all our lives.

Reserve your place today at http://www.ebri.org/register/.
– Notes 

[1] Iconic as it might be, the movie’s most famous quote, “Houston, we have a problem”, wasn’t an accurate quote. According to NASA audio files, Astronaut Jack Swigert first said, “OK Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” Mission Control said, “This is Houston. Say again, please.” Then Jim Lovell said, “Ahh, Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

Because “we’ve had” implies the problem has passed, movie director Ron Howard chose to use “we have”.    

“Reference” Points

Nevin Adams

Nevin Adams

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

We started setting money aside for our children’s college education relatively early, but as they began actually considering their options, it was clear that our savings wouldn’t be enough to cover the expense at some of the schools on their lists. Moreover, while all three wouldn’t all be in college at the same time, there was enough overlap to make it “complicated.”

While we didn’t want to limit our kids’ college choices, we had certain real world constraints—and so we told them how much we could contribute to their college expenses, and that they were free to make up the difference between that figure and the actual expense of the college they chose through their own work, scholarships, and/or debt. As a practical matter, defining our “contribution” may have taken some options off their lists, but, certainly in hindsight, it seemed to give them focus and some real-world context—a reference point—for one of the biggest financial decisions of their lives.      

Employers have been interested in and have tried to implement the “defined contribution” concept for health benefits in a number of different ways. The Revenue Act of 1978 started it with Sec. 125 and flexible spending accounts and “cafeteria plans.” A recent EBRI Issue Brief outlines some of the more recent history, the introduction of health reimbursement arrangements (HRA) in 2001, health savings accounts (HSA) in 2004, and the more recent trend toward private health insurance exchanges, where employers provide a fixed amount of money for workers to use toward the cost of health coverage.

However, the primary focus of the report is another defined contribution approach called reference pricing (RP), under which plan sponsors either pay a fixed amount or limit their contributions toward the cost of a specific health care service. If a plan member chooses a health care provider or service that costs more, he or she must pay the difference in price. Reference pricing is receiving more attention and consideration today because of growing plan sponsor interest in managing health care costs, but the approach is still relatively new; in 2012, 11 percent of employers with 500 or more workers were using some type of RP, and another 16 percent were considering it.

How might such an approach impact cost? EBRI’s analysis indicates that the potential aggregate savings could reach $9.4 billion if all employers adopted reference pricing for the health care services examined in the paper, some 1.6 percent of all spending on health care services among the 156 million people under age 65 with employment-based health benefits in 2010.

As the report notes, savings from reference pricing materializes through the combination of 1) patients choosing providers at the reference price, 2) patients paying the difference between the reference price and the allowed charge through cost sharing, and 3) providers reducing their prices to the reference price. Obviously, any increase in prices among providers below the reference price would reduce the potential for savings.

From an employer perspective, the approach establishes a cost threshold for the service(s) selected, but as the EBRI analysis notes, plan sponsors should obviously consider a number of issues as they weigh adopting reference pricing, including how the reference price is determined and how providers may react. Communication to plan members is also key to effective use of reference pricing.

For plan members, it could represent the potential for expanded choice with some pricing context—but, as with my kids’ college selection process, they’ll likely need more data on prices and quality in order to make truly informed decisions.

Notes

The full report is published in the April EBRI Issue Brief, “Reference Pricing for Health Care Services: A New Twist on the Defined Contribution Concept in Employment-Based Health Benefits” available online here.

Needs “Assessment”

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Nevin Adams

My eating habits have always tended toward what my mother politely calls “finicky.” Oh, she tried repeatedly over the years to broaden my horizons but without much success. My wife has similarly tried to expand and improve my dietary choices over the years, but even with the admonition of needing to set a good example for my kids, (my) old habits die hard. In exasperation, she’ll frequently say, “Have you ever even tried _____?”

One of the more surprising findings from the 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey was that fewer than half of respondents indicate they (or their spouse) have EVER tried to calculate how much money they will need to have saved so that they can live comfortably in retirement.

What’s even more surprising, of course, is that that percentage has held fairly consistent for the past decade, “peaking” at 53 percent in 2000, before slipping to 38 percent in 2002.[1] It’s recovered since, of course, but still—in this day and age, with so many free and easy-to-access tools available, despite the pressures of daily life and finances, it’s hard to imagine that so many have still not even bothered to make a single attempt to do so.

As you might expect, some are more likely to do a retirement savings needs calculation than others. Married workers are more likely to have done so than singles, and the likelihood of doing the calculation increases with household income, education, and financial assets. Moreover, workers reporting that they, or their spouse, have an IRA, defined contribution, or defined benefit retirement plan are more than twice as likely as those who do not have these to have done a calculation (56 percent vs. 25 percent).

There do appear to be benefits—both emotional and tangible—to doing a retirement needs calculation. Consistent with prior RCS findings, despite having set higher savings goals,[2] workers who have done a retirement savings needs calculation are more likely to feel very confident about affording a comfortable retirement (25 percent vs. 13 percent who have not done a calculation in this year’s survey). In fact, a previous EBRI analysis found that those using an online calculator appeared to set more adequate savings targets, as measured by the probability of not running short of money in retirement.[3]

So, why haven’t more done a retirement needs calculation? Perhaps they’re nervous about the time and energy it might take to do one; maybe they’re worried they don’t know enough to do the calculation; it might even be, particularly if they’ve made no preparations for retirement, that they are afraid to find out the answer.

Whatever their rationale, a great place to start figuring out what they -or you- will need is the BallparkE$timate,® available online at www.choosetosave.org[4]

It’ll be good for you—will likely improve your retirement prospects—and you might even enjoy it.

 

More information from the 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey, the longest-running survey of its kind in the nation, is available in the March 2014 EBRI Issue Brief, “The 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey: Confidence Rebounds—for Those With Retirement Plans,” online here.

Notes

[1] Even among those who have made an attempt, the methods of calculation reported have been quite “varied”—according to the 2013 Retirement Confidence Survey, workers often guess at how much they will need to accumulate (45 percent), rather than doing a systematic retirement needs calculation. Eighteen percent each indicated they did their own estimate or asked a financial advisor, while 8 percenteach used an online calculator or read or heard how much was needed.

[2] Workers who have done a retirement savings needs calculation tend to report higher savings goals than workers who have not done the calculation. In this year’s RCS, 29 percent of workers who have done a calculation, compared with 15 percent of those who have not, estimate they need to accumulate at least $1 million for retirement. At the other extreme, 17 percent of those who have done a calculation, compared with 37 percent who have not, think they need to save less than $250,000 for retirement.

[3] See “A Little Help: The Impact of On-line Calculators and Financial Advisors on Setting Adequate Retirement-Savings Targets: Evidence from the 2013 Retirement Confidence Survey,” online here.

[4] Organizations interested in building/reinforcing a workplace savings campaign can find a variety of free resources at www.choosetosave.org, courtesy of the American Savings Education Council (ASEC). Choose to Save® is sponsored by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute Education and Research Fund (EBRI-ERF) and one of its programs, ASEC. The website and materials development have been underwritten through generous grants and additional support from EBRI Members and ASEC Partner institutions.

“Expected” Values

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Nevin Adams

Over the past several years, a growing amount of attention has been focused on the decumulations of defined contribution plan balances in retirement. Much of that focus has, of course, been driven by concerns that those individuals won’t have enough resources accumulated to fund those retirements. More recently, there has been a sense that one way to help provide a different perspective on these retirement savings would be to provide participants with an estimate of what their current or projected savings would produce in terms of a retirement income stream.

In May 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) focusing on lifetime income illustrations. Under that proposal, a participant’s pension benefit statement (including his or her 401(k) statement) would show his or her current account balance and an estimated lifetime income stream of payments based on that balance.

As noted in a recent EBRI Notes article[i], there appears to be little empirical evidence on the likely impact of such a lifetime income illustration on defined contribution participant behavior. In an attempt to provide some additional evidence with respect to potential defined contribution participant reaction to lifetime income illustrations similar to those proposed by EBSA, EBRI included a series of questions in the 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey that would provide monthly income illustrations similar in many respects to those provided by the EBSA’s online Lifetime Income Calculator.

Of course, any such projection is necessarily required to make a number of critical assumptions—including future contribution activity, future rates of return, future asset allocation, and future annuity purchase prices. Moreover, the estimates we provided were different in several aspects, notably:

  • Rather than using normal retirement age for the calculation, we asked their expected retirement age.
  • Since the age of the spouse was not known for married respondents, only the single life annuity income illustration was used.
  • Given that the information was being provided to the respondent during a phone interview, only the projected monthly income (based on the projected account balance given the respondents’ reporting of their current balances) was provided.

What we found was that fewer than 1 in 10 (8 percent) of the defined contribution participants said the monthly amount was much less than expected, though another 1 in 5 (19 percent) said it was somewhat less than expected[ii].

However, more than half (58 percent) thought that the illustrated monthly income was in line with their expectations.

Considering those results, it is perhaps not surprising that the vast majority (81 percent) of the respondents indicated that they would continue to contribute what they do now after hearing the projected monthly income amount, while 17 percent replied that hearing this information would lead them to increase the amount they are contributing. Similarly, the vast majority (89 percent) did not believe this information would impact their expected retirement age.

They may not have been much surprised by the results, but the vast majority of respondents said the retirement income projection was useful; more than 1 in 3 (36 percent) respondents thought that it was very useful to hear an estimate of the monthly retirement income they might expect from their plan, and another 49 percent thought it was somewhat useful. Moreover, the utility of the projection appeared to transcend the results; 90 percent of those whose illustrated values were lower than expected found the estimates somewhat or very useful, and nearly as many (86 percent) of those whose values were equal to what they expected also found the estimates somewhat or very useful. Even among those who felt the values were higher than expected, 79 percent found the estimates somewhat or very useful.

I’ve heard from several in the industry since the results were released who were surprised – that the survey respondents weren’t surprised. It is, of course, possible (as the article explains) that these respondents’ current participation in employment-based plans has already provided them the education and information necessary for an appreciation both of the projected total and the monthly income estimate, and thus a greater alignment of those projections with their expectations. It could also be that, having given some thought to the subject of savings and retirement over the course of the interview, they had more realistic expectations.

Of course, whether those expectations about living on those amounts in retirement will turn out to be realistic remains to be seen.

  • Notes

[i] The EBRI March 2014 Notes article, “How Would Defined Contribution Participants React to Lifetime Income Illustrations? Evidence from the 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey,” is available online here.

[ii] There were some interesting differences by income level; combining the “much less” and “somewhat less” categories, we found that 42 percent of those in the lowest quartile for illustrated monthly income indicated that the value was less than expected, versus only 9 percent of the highest quartile.