Why Do Late Boomers Have So Little Retirement Wealth?

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.

Center for Retirement Research at Boston College