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By Dan Kadlec
April 8, 2015
Eric Hood—iStock

A third of U.S. workers nearing retirement are destined to live in or near poverty after leaving their jobs, new research shows. One underlying cause: a sharp decline in employer-sponsored retirement plans over the past 15 years.

Just 53% of workers aged 25-64 had access to an employer-sponsored retirement savings plan in 2011, down from 61% in 1999, according to a report from Teresa Ghilarducci, professor of economics at the New School. More recent data was not available, but the downward trend has likely continued, the report finds.

This data includes both traditional pensions and 401(k)-like plans. So the falloff in access to a retirement plan is not simply the result of disappearing defined-benefit plans, though that trend remains firmly entrenched. Just 16% of workers with an employer-sponsored plan have a traditional pension as their primary retirement plan, vs. 63% with a 401(k) plan, Ghilarducci found.

Workers with access to an employer-sponsored plan are most likely to be prepared for retirement, other research shows. So the falling rate of those with access is a big deal. In 2011, 68% of the working-age U.S. population did not participate in an employer-sponsored retirement plan. The reasons ranged from not being eligible to not having a job to choosing to opt out, according to Ghilarducci’s research.

She reports that the median household net worth of couples aged 55-64 is just $325,300 and that 55% of these households will have to subsist almost entirely on Social Security benefits in retirement. The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College and the National Institute on Retirement Security, among others, have also found persistent gaps in retirement readiness. Now we see where insufficient savings and the erosion of employer-based plans is leading—poverty-level retirements for a good chunk of the population.

At the policy level, we need to encourage more employers to offer a retirement plan. On an individual level, you can fix the problem with some discipline. Even those aged 50 and older have time to change the equation by spending less, taking advantage of tax-deferred catch-up savings limits in an IRA or 401(k), and planning to stay on the job a few years longer. That may sound like tough medicine, but it’s nothing next to struggling financially throughout your retirement.

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Our mission is to help people at any stage of life make smart financial decisions through research, reporting, reviews, recommendations, and tools.

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Our content is free because our partners pay us a referral fee if you click on links or call any of the phone numbers on our site. If you choose to interact with the content on our site, we will likely receive compensation. If you don't, we will not be compensated. Ultimately the choice is yours.

Opinions are our own and our editors and staff writers are instructed to maintain editorial integrity, but compensation along with in-depth research will determine where, how, and in what order they appear on the page.

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