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Retirement Wealth Across Cohorts: The Role of Earnings Inequality and Pension Changes

  • Ann Huff Stevens

    (University of California, Davis)

Changes in labor markets over the past 30 years suggest upcoming changes in the distribution of wealth at retirement. Baby boom cohorts have spent the majority of their prime earnings years in a labor market with increased earnings inequality. This paper investigates how changes in lifetime earnings distributions affect the distribution of retirement wealth among cohorts retiring over the next decade. I use data from the Health and Retirement Study from 1992 to 2004 to estimate the relationship between lifetime earnings, pre-retirement private wealth and Social Security wealth. I show that changes in the lower half of the male earnings distribution explain a substantial portion of changes in the distribution of pre-retirement wealth. Growth in women’s earnings across the cohorts do not offset these declines in wealth associated with male earnings. When pensions are added to the measure of wealth, the role of earnings is even larger, reflecting a strong correlation between changes in earnings across these cohorts and changes in the values of their employer-provided pensions. These pension changes do not appear to operate via changes in pension structures (defined benefit versus defined contribution). The present value of wealth from future Social Security benefits, in contrast, grows in real terms throughout most of the distribution. At the bottom of the male distribution of Social Security wealth, reductions in lifetime earnings limit this growth in real benefits, while at the top of the distribution earnings growth amplifies expected growth in Social Security wealth.

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Paper provided by University of Michigan, Michigan Retirement Research Center in its series Working Papers with number wp186.

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Length: 54 pages
Date of creation: Sep 2008
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:mrr:papers:wp186
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  1. Fortin, N.M. & Lemieux, T., 1996. "Rank Regressions, Wage Distributions and the Gender Gap," Cahiers de recherche 9607, Centre interuniversitaire de recherche en économie quantitative, CIREQ.
  2. Sewin Chan & Ann Huff Stevens, 2008. "What You Don't Know Can't Help You: Pension Knowledge and Retirement Decision-Making," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 90(2), pages 253-266, May.
  3. Lusardi, Annamaria & Mitchell, Olivia S., 2007. "Baby Boomer retirement security: The roles of planning, financial literacy, and housing wealth," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 54(1), pages 205-224, January.
  4. Wolff, Edward N., 2007. "The retirement wealth of the baby boom generation," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 54(1), pages 1-40, January.
  5. Karen E. Dynan & Jonathan Skinner & Stephen P. Zeldes, 2004. "Do the Rich Save More?," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 112(2), pages 397-444, April.
  6. Andrew G. Biggs & Jeffrey R. Brown & Glenn Springstead, 2005. "Alternative Methods of Price Indexing Social Security: Implications for Benefits and System Financing," NBER Working Papers 11406, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  7. Peter Gottschalk & Robert Moffitt, 1994. "The Growth of Earnings Instability in the U.S. Labor Market," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 25(2), pages 217-272.
  8. James P. Smith, 2004. "Why is Wealth Inequality Rising?," Macroeconomics 0402012, EconWPA.
  9. Venti, Steven F & Wise, David A, 1998. "The Cause of Wealth Dispersion at Retirement: Choice or Chance?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 88(2), pages 185-91, May.
  10. José Mata & José A. F. Machado, 2005. "Counterfactual decomposition of changes in wage distributions using quantile regression," Journal of Applied Econometrics, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 20(4), pages 445-465.
  11. Engen, Eric & Gale, William & Uccello, Cori, 1999. "The Adequacy of Household Saving," MPRA Paper 56442, University Library of Munich, Germany.
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