More than a decade ago, a Vanguard client asked us to help improve its defined contribution retirement plan. New hires were participating in the plan at lower rates than in previous years, and the client wanted to reverse this trend. Another priority was to help more participants invest their retirement savings in balanced portfolios.

The overall goal of this longtime client: Give employees a better chance to achieve financial security in retirement.

Today, that plan automatically enrolls employees at a 5% contribution rate, puts them in a low-cost target-date fund that takes on less risk as they near retirement, and offers a comprehensive suite of advice services. On top of that, employees get an employer contribution of 5% and are eligible for a company match.

Because of this combination of attractive features and generous employer contributions, nearly all new hires now participate in the plan, 81% of plan participants invest their retirement savings in balanced portfolios, and 87% of participants meet or exceed Vanguard’s recommended total retirement savings target. (Vanguard generally recommends that retirement investors save 12%–15% of pay, including company matches.)

Changing the retirement landscape

Am I singling out an isolated Vanguard success story? Absolutely not.

Stories like these are becoming increasingly common with employer-based retirement plans, particularly among large and mid-size companies. Options such as automatic enrollment, automatic contribution increases, and default investment in target-date funds are having a positive effect.

Insights from the relatively new discipline of behavioral finance have contributed to the advances. Simply put, retirement plans are making natural human inertia work for future retirees, rather than against them, by putting savings on autopilot as much as possible.

More than 60% of Vanguard participants are in plans with automatic enrollment, which has led to a big jump in participation. Today, more than four-fifths of eligible employees in Vanguard-administered plans are saving for retirement, compared with only two-thirds ten years ago.

In addition, many plans have adopted autoescalation features, which increase plan contributions at regular intervals until a maximum level is reached or an employee opts out. Automatic increases are a crucial tool for boosting retirement savings rates.

The growing use of target-date funds is another enormous benefit. More than 70% of all participants in Vanguard plans invest at least part of their retirement savings in these age-appropriate, diversified strategies. And nearly 50% of Vanguard participants are invested solely in a single target-date fund.

Consider a do-it-yourself target-date fund

But what if you don’t have access to a world-class, employer-based retirement plan? Unfortunately, not everyone does, which is an important policy issue.

However, you can still put the features of these plans to work. For example, you can set up automatic contributions from your paycheck to an IRA. And you can adopt your own autoescalation by investing any pay raises.

You can also take a page from top-quality retirement plans by considering a low-cost, globally diversified target-date fund. The beauty of this approach is that the fund can do the rebalancing for you.

Of course, you can take a more active role in picking your own investments, and this can be a good choice for some. But keep in mind the lessons from successful employer-based plans: Busy workers, faced with a lot of competing priorities, can be best served by putting their retirement savings in a target-date fund.

Winning by default

In highlighting some recent successes in retirement savings, I don’t want to minimize the challenges we still face. We’re living in a slow-growth, uncertain world, and investment returns for both stocks and bonds could well be modest in the coming decade.

But I believe the innovations we’ve seen in the last ten years in many retirement plans—you might call it the “default revolution”—point the way toward a solution. And that even goes for people whose employers don’t have a world-class retirement plan.

Notes:

  • All investing is subject to risk, including the possible loss of the money you invest.
  • Investments in Target Retirement Funds are subject to the risks of their underlying funds. The year in the fund name refers to the approximate year (the target date) when an investor in the fund would retire and leave the workforce. The fund will gradually shift its emphasis from more aggressive investments to more conservative ones based on its target date. An investment in the Target Retirement Fund is not guaranteed at any time, including on or after the target date.
  • Diversification does not ensure a profit or protect against a loss.