Download this Paper Open PDF in Browser

Employment-Based Retirement Plan Participation: Geographic Differences and Trends, 2011

44 Pages Posted: 30 Nov 2012  

Craig Copeland

Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI)

Date Written: November 2012


This paper examines the level of participation by workers in public- and private-sector, employment-based pension or retirement plans, based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s March 2012 Current Population Survey (CPS), the most recent data currently available. It begins with an overview of retirement-plan types and participation in these types of plans and describes the data used in this study, along with their relative strengths and weaknesses. From these data, results on participation in employment-based retirement plans are analyzed for 2011 across various worker and employer characteristics. The report then explores retirement plan participation across U.S. geographic regions, including comparisons by state and by certain consolidated statistical areas (CSAs). In addition to the results for 2011, trends from 1987-2011 in employment-based retirement plan participation are presented across many of the same worker and employer characteristics as used for 2011. Furthermore, an accounting of the number of workers who work for an employer that does not sponsor a plan and of workers who do not participate in a plan is provided by various demographic and employer characteristics.

In 2011, 39.7 percent of all workers, or 61.0 million Americans, participated in an employment-based retirement plan. Among full-time, full-year wage and salary workers ages 21 to 64 -- those with the strongest connection to the work force -- 53.7 percent participated. This percentage of participating workers varied significantly across various worker and employer characteristics. Being nonwhite, younger, female, never married; having lower educational attainment, lower earnings, poorer health status, no health insurance through one’s own employer; not working full time, full year, and working in service occupations or farming, fisheries, and forestry occupations were all associated with lower levels of participation in a retirement plan. In addition, those working for smaller firms, private-sector firms, or firms in the “other” (not professional) services industry were also less likely to participate. Another factor in the likelihood of workers’ participation in a retirement plan was their geographic location, with workers in the South and West less likely to participate than those in other regions of the country. The increase in the number of workers participating in 2011 halted the three-year decline from 2008-2010, leaving the percentage of workers participating in a retirement plan essentially unchanged from 2010, while some of the categories examined had increases in the probability of workers participating and others showed decreases. Many of the categories of workers remained near their 2009 levels of participation. The downturns in the economy and stock market in 2008 and into 2009 showed a two-year decline in both the number and percentage of workers participating in an employment-based retirement plan. The 2010 and 2011 levels stabilized as the economy was more stable but not experiencing strong growth. As things stand now, the current economic environment is likely to result in 2012 participation numbers that are essentially unchanged or decreasing, though many other underlying factors will continue to affect the future direction of this trend.

Keywords: Defined benefit plans, Defined contribution plans, Demographics, Employment-based benefits, Pension plan coverage, Pension plan participation, Retirement plans

JEL Classification: J1, J15, J16, J26, J33

Suggested Citation

Copeland, Craig, Employment-Based Retirement Plan Participation: Geographic Differences and Trends, 2011 (November 2012). EBRI Issue Brief, No. 378 (November 2012). Available at SSRN:

Craig Copeland (Contact Author)

Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) ( email )

1100 13th Street, NW
Suite 878
Washington, DC 20005-4204
United States
202-775-6356 (Phone)
202-775-6312 (Fax)

Paper statistics

Abstract Views