Why Do Late Boomers Have So Little Retirement Wealth?

TitleWhy Do Late Boomers Have So Little Retirement Wealth?
Publication TypeReport
Year of Publication2020
AuthorsChen, A, Hou, W, Munnell, AH
Series TitleCenter for Retirement Research at Boston College
InstitutionCenter for Retirement Research at Boston College
KeywordsRetirement wealth, Social Security

Over the last 40 years, the retirement system has shifted from defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans, primarily 401(k)s and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs). This shift has been accompanied by a decline in Social Security benefits relative to pre-retirement earnings as the program’s Full Retirement Age has moved from 65 to 67. Thus, the expected pattern when examining retirement wealth across cohorts is relatively less wealth from defined benefit plans and Social Security and much more from 401(k)s and IRAs. However, the numbers for the most recent cohort in the Health and Retirement Study – the Late Boomers – show not only the predicted declines in defined benefit plans and Social Security but also an unexpected drop in 401(k)/IRA assets. This drop is alarming given that Late Boomers, who were ages 51-56 in 2016, would have spent the majority of their careers in a defined contribution world. This brief is a first pass at trying to explain why this younger cohort has less in 401(k)/IRA assets than older cohorts had at the same age and what that means for the future of retirement security. The discussion proceeds as follows. The first section identifies the cohorts that are examined and the calculation of retirement wealth. The second section identifies a turn in the fortunes of Late Boomers during the Great Recession, when a significant share stopped working. But lack of employment does not explain the whole problem, so the third section follows working households and finds that after the Great Recession they had lower earnings, less 401(k) participation, and flat 401(k) balances, ending up well below earlier cohorts. A look at more recent cohorts offers a mixed picture for the future. The final section concludes that the Late Boomers’ low 401(k)/IRA wealth can be explained by particularly high levels of unemployment during the Great Recession and more reliance on lower-paid jobs when they re-entered the labor market. Why they were so hard hit, wh

Citation KeyRePEc:crr:issbrf:ib2020-4