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An 'Educated' Guess

It’s not hard to find scary headlines about 401(k)s – seems as though every week you read how people aren’t saving enough, are worried that they aren’t saving enough, aren’t saving enough and aren’t worried that they aren’t saving enough… Then in the past couple of weeks, a new twist.

First a headline that proclaims that “The 401(k) is Wreaking Havoc on Retirement.” Then one that purports to share “Why 401(k)s are bad for people without a college degree.” As it turns out, the articles are both about the same study, “Disadvantages of the Less Educated: Education and Contributory Pensions at Work.”

The authors of that study (ChangHwan Kim of the University of Kansas and Christopher Tamborini of the Social Security Administration) offer a basic premise – that less educated workers aren’t as well served as college graduates by the current defined contribution-centric plan structures (notably 401(k)s) that predominate the retirement landscape today – which is to say that they are less likely to be covered by those plans, less likely to take advantage when they are covered, and inclined to save less than their degreed counterparts even when they do take advantage.

They present evidence that less-educated workers save less, even when they make the same money as those with college educations. How much less? They say that college-educated people are 1.2 times more likely to be enrolled in a DC plan than high-school graduates are – and that’s even after controlling for income, access to a retirement plan, occupation, job tenure and other factors. Those with college degrees also contribute 26% more to their retirement, on average, according to the report.

But, not content to leave it there, they go on to suggest that less-educated workers were better off in a defined benefit structured environment where they didn’t have to make the decision to participate, and where they didn’t have to decide how much to save. (The most significant distinction – that in the private sector they generally didn’t have to contribute – isn’t mentioned.) Indeed, if the DB system had been as pervasive as many assume – or as generous in result as it was in design – they might have a point.

Wreaked Wrought?

But has that result – and the very existence of the 401(k) – truly “wreaked havoc” on the nation’s retirement system? In fairness, the authors of the study don’t make that claim – that’s left to the journalists looking for a catchy headline (or hoping to press a specific agenda). But those who retain this fond notion of the way things were tend to gloss over the reality that it’s one thing to be covered by, or even to participate in a DB plan, something else altogether to work there long enough to accumulate any real benefit. While some workers did spend their working career at a single employer (and some still do, especially in the public sector), the data show that for the most part we have long been a nation of relatively short-tenured workers.

How short? Well, the median job tenure in the United States has hovered around five years for the past three decades. Indeed, according to the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), in recent years it has ticked up, to about 5.5 years, but that’s because women are staying in their jobs longer; job tenure for men has actually been dropping. What that means is that even workers who were “covered” by a pension plan in the private sector – particularly back in the time before there weren’t 401(k)s – were highly likely to walk away with… nothing.

While I get that a system which relies on workers to take action, to make decisions and, yes, even to set money aside from their pay to fund their retirement, might not work as well for those who don’t take advantage of it as a system that asked nothing of them other than to remain employed, the realities of American job tenure probably undermined those advantages – and then some.

The less educated may indeed be at something of a disadvantage in a voluntary savings system relative to those who are more inclined to take advantage of its opportunities – but that shouldn’t be equated with a presumption that they were better served by a system that depended on job tenure levels that never existed for most.