At any one time only half of workers participate in a retirement plan at work. This is, in part, because employers are not required to have retirement plans, and also because those who offer plans can limit retirement plan coverage to certain classes of workers. In addition, workers offered 401(k) and other retirement savings plans can typically choose whether or not to participate in their employer’s retirement plan. In March 2019 there were 61.1 million workers who did not participate in a retirement plan at work.**
Access, Participation and Take-up rates
The National Compensation Survey (NCS) distinguishes between access to a retirement plan and participation in the plan. For a worker to have access to a retirement plan at work an employer must have a plan that covers the worker and the worker must be eligible to participate in the plan. Eligibility to participate can depend on age and years of service with an employer. Participation is generally automatic for workers who meet the eligibility requirements of defined benefit plans.*Workers in 401(k)-type savings plans have the option not to participate and thus participation rates for these plans are lower than access rates. The NCS take-up rate is the percent of workers with access to a plan who also participate in the plan. The employer plans include defined benefit plans, 401(k), 403(b), profit-sharing, ESOP or money purchase plan. See the BLS/NCS glossary for definitions of access and participation. For an analysis of take-up rates see BLS/NCS TED: The Economics Daily, September 23, 2019,
*Public-sector workers generally are required to contribute to their defined benefit plans. In 2019 ninety-two percent of public-sector workers in defined benefit plans were required to contribute to their plans. The median rate of contribution was seven percent of annual earnings. See here.
Access, participation and take-up rates by type of plan, NCS, March 2019**
|Defined benefit plans||26%||21%||82%|
|Retirement savings plans||60%||43%||72%|
|Private-sector workers only||67%||52%||77%|
|Defined benefit plans||16%||12%||76%|
|Retirement savings plans||64%||47%||74%|
|State and local government workers||91%||83%||91%|
|Defined benefit plans||86%||76%||89%|
|Retirement savings plans||37%||17%||47%|
*Access and participation numbers may not add up since some workers have access to, and participate in, both types of plans.