The shift from pensions to 401(k) plans is making retirement inequality much worse — and education is what separates the haves from the have-nots, a new study has found.
College graduates have always been able to get better jobs. What’s new in recent decades is that traditional pensions have all but vanished, replaced by 401(k)-style plans.
In 1980, 38% of private sector workers had a pension and 19% a 401(k). By last year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the numbers had more or less reversed — just 15% had a pension and 43% a 401(k).
That shift is creating “double disadvantages for the less educated,” wrote University of Kansas sociology professor ChangHwan Kim and U.S. Social Security Administration researcher Christopher Tamborini in a paper presented at the American Sociological Association’s annual conference on Tuesday.
The authors analyzed surveys linked to W-2 tax data to figure out how much Americans with varying levels of education were saving in their retirement accounts.
Among workers who hold similar jobs with the same pay and who both contribute to 401(k) plans, a college graduate tends to save 26% more than a worker with just a high school diploma, the study concluded.
Workers with college degrees aren’t only far more likely to hold jobs that offer retirement plans. When offered the plans, they’re also far more likely to sign up and to contribute enough to retire comfortably.
The median private sector worker without a college degree is contributing nothing to a retirement plan, while the median college graduate pitches in more than $2,000 a year, the study found.
One reason is that less educated workers are likelier to hold lower-paying jobs that don’t offer retirement plans. According to the study, 83% of workers with a bachelor’s degree have access to some kind of retirement plan — compared with 62% of high school graduates and 43% of high school dropouts.
Even when they are offered 401(k)s, less educated workers find it much more difficult to take full advantage of them.
One advantage of a traditional pension is that it’s automatic: A set amount is contributed for each worker — an amount that’s supposed to guarantee a good income in retirement — and investments are managed by professionals.
The typical 401(k) is anything but automatic. Workers must decide whether to participate, how much to contribute, and which investments to choose.
While more than 80% of college graduates sign up for the 401(k) offered to them, only 69% of high school graduates do the same. Less than 61% of those without a high school diploma fill out the 401(k) paperwork.