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Economic SYNOPSES
short essays and reports on the economic issues of the day
2002 ■ Number 7

Putting Off Retirement: The Rise of the 401(k)
Abbigail J. Chiodo and Michael T. Owyang
n the last 20 years, one notable trend in pension structure is that defined benefit (DB) pensions (i.e., plans
that offer a predetermined payoff after a certain number of years of employment) have become less common
while defined contribution (DC) plans (e.g., 401(k) plans)
have become much more common.1 Economic theory suggests that one reason companies offer DB pensions is to
induce workers to retire at a specific age. Does the rise of the
401(k) plan change the retirement incentives of workers?
A standard DB plan is set up to spike in value at a predetermined age. A worker with a DB plan, therefore, has
the incentive to stay at his or her job at least until the value
of the pension is at its highest. For example, the payoff
from a DB pension may leap from 20 percent to 40 percent of pre-retirement income when the worker turns 60.
Continuing to work past age 60 leads to little or no additional increases in future benefits, thus giving the worker
the incentive to retire at age 60.
A DC plan differs from a DB plan in two important
ways: the annuity value of a DC plan does not hit a peak
at any certain age and a DC plan is portable between jobs.
A worker with a DC plan, then, can change jobs at any age
without jeopardizing retirement income. With DC plans,
workers retire when the combination of retirement annuity
income is sufficiently high and work satisfaction is sufficiently low. The portability of DC plans across employers
and the absence of an upper bound on their annuity value
should imply later retirement dates, on average. But do
employees with 401(k)’s really work longer?
Using data from the Health and Retirement Study,
Leora Friedberg and Tony Webb (2000) estimate the likelihood, from one year to the next, that a full-time employee will voluntarily leave his or her job and fully retire.2
The accompanying Figure shows predicted labor participation of workers with a DB plan. More than 80 percent
would retire by age 65. If those same workers had a DC
pension, only about 60 percent would retire by age 65.
Controlling for earnings, wealth, and Social Security,

I

Friedberg and Webb find that workers with DC pensions
are less likely to retire in any given year than workers with
DB plans. Overall, they estimate that a worker with a DB
plan retires 23 months earlier on average, other things equal.
They also predict that the change in pension structure to
date will raise the average retirement age of pensioned
workers between three and eight months.
Changes in the workplace have afforded workers more
flexibility and more mobility. Pension coverage has followed
this trend with portable 401(k) plans replacing defined
benefit pensions, thereby allowing individuals to choose
their own retirement age based on their personal preferences concerning work satisfaction and desired retirement
income. ■
1
The portion of workers with some kind of pension coverage that have a DC plan
jumped from 60 percent in 1983 to 79 percent in 1995. At the same time, the
number of workers with a DB plan fell from 85 percent in 1983 to 40 percent in
1995 (Friedberg, Leora and Owyang, Michael T. “Not Your Father’s Pension Plan:
The Rise of 401k and Other Defined Contribution Plans.” Federal Reserve Bank of
St. Louis Review, January/February 2002, 84(1), pp. 23-34).
2

Friedberg, Leora and Webb, Anthony. “Retirement and the Evolution of Pension
Structure.” Working Paper No. 2000-30, University of California at San Diego,
January 2000.

Predicted Labor Force Participation of Workers
Percent Retired
100
80
60
40
20
0
53

54

55

56

57

58

59

60

With DC Plan

Views expressed do not necessarily reflect official positions of the Federal Reserve System.

research.stlouisfed.org

61

62

63

64

Age
With DB Plan

65

66