If you have access to a retirement plan at work, consider yourself among the more fortunate half of the population. Just 49 percent of Americans worked for an employer that sponsored a retirement plan in 2009, according to a new Employee Benefit Research Institute analysis of Census Bureau data. And only 40 percent of workers participated in a retirement plan in 2009, down from a high of 44 percent in 2000.
Access to retirement benefits has been declining since the beginning of the decade and the 2008 recession pushed even more workers out of the employment-based retirement system. The number of employees participating in a retirement plan at work decreased from 63.7 million in 2008 to 61 million in 2009. That’s well below the 67.1 million workers who participated in a plan in 2000. And we’re not even talking about traditional pensions, which have been declining for decades. Retirement benefits included in the study include traditional pensions, 401(k)s, and similar types of retirement accounts both with and without employer contributions. Even among full-time workers between ages 21 and 64, the group most likely to have retirement benefits, just over half (54 percent) participated in a retirement plan in 2009, down from a high of 60 percent in 1999.
Part of the problem is that fewer employers are offering retirement benefits. In 1999, 69 percent of employers offered their full time workers some form of retirement benefits. Now, just 62 percent of employers or unions provide a pension or retirement savings account. Public sector employees are considerably more likely to be offered a pension or 401(k) (81 percent) than workers in the private sector (49 percent). But even when retirement benefits are offered, not all workers take advantage of them. Participation tends to increase with age. Some 61 percent of workers age 55 to 64 participate in a retirement plan, compared with 31 percent of those age 21 to 24.
EBRI expects the downward trend in retirement plan participation to continue in 2010, due to the high unemployment rate and because many large private sector employers have frozen their traditional pension plans.