The number of American workers participating in a retirement plan continued to decrease last year, adding to a trend that began with the recession of 2008 and reaching its lowest level in a decade, according to a new study.

The study, by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, shows that the employment-based retirement system, while still critical to Americans' retirement income security, continues to feel the pressure of the recent economic downturn. The EBRI analysis, based on latest U.S. Census Bureau data, shows that among all workers (including those not offered a retirement plan at work), 39.6 percent participated in a retirement plan in 2009, about a percentage point less than 2008 and down almost 5 percentage points from the high of  44.4 percent registered in 2000. 

Among those most likely to have benefits—full-time, full-year wage and salary workers ages 21–64—just over half (54.4 percent) participated in a retirement plan in 2009, down 6 percentage points from the high of 60.4 percent registered in 1999.

The rate of employers sponsoring retirement plans also dropped in 2009 to 61.8 percent for full-time, full-year wage and salary workers, down almost 8 percentage points from the high of 69.4 percent measured in 1999.

EBRI notes that the downward trend in retirement plan participation is likely to continue in 2010, since the unemployment rate this year has remained higher than the rate before the economic downturn in 2008, and because many large private-sector employers have frozen their traditional defined benefit pension plans.

A key factor in whether this trend turns around is how employers and workers will respond to the automatic enrollment provisions for 401(k) retirement plans, which were encouraged by the Pension Protection Act of 2006 that went into effect during the economic downturn of 2008. Among all workers, 49.3 percent worked for an employer that sponsored a retirement plan in 2009—the first time since 1990 the sponsorship rate has dropped below 50 percent.

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