The Attack on Workers’ Retirement

Source: Dean Baker, Labor Notes, January 12, 2018

While many current retirees are reasonably comfortable because they have pensions, the future does not look bright for those yet to retire.

Traditional defined-benefit pensions are rapidly disappearing in the private sector—less than 15 percent of workers have them. Most public sector workers still have them—more than 20 million are either now receiving or looking forward to a pension. However, public sector pensions are coming under attack from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other right-wing groups.

Over the last four decades employers have been anxious to convert the traditional defined-benefit pensions into defined-contribution 401(k) plans.

The difference is that with a defined benefit, the worker is secure while the employer does not know exactly how much it will have to pay in. Workers are guaranteed a lifetime benefit based on their salary and years of service; the employer’s bill depends on the worker’s longevity and on stock market performance.

With a defined-contribution plan, the employer knows just how much it will pay each year, and the worker shoulders all the uncertainty. This means that workers face the risk that the market will plunge just after they retire—and they may quite possibly outlive their savings.

By getting rid of defined-benefit plans, employers are transferring risk to workers. In addition, they often contribute less to a defined-contribution plan than to the defined-benefit plans they replaced, in effect cutting workers’ pay. ….