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Press release:

Aon Hewitt Study Shows Record-High Participation in Defined Contribution Plans Driven by Automatic Enrollment

Issued by: Aon Corporation

Date: May 24, 2011

Despite High Participation, Automatic Enrollment Is Hindering Contribution Rates

LINCOLNSHIRE, Ill., May 24, 2011 -- As more employers use automatic enrollment, a new study from Aon Hewitt, the global human resources outsourcing and consulting company of Aon Corporation (NYSE: AON), reveals that employees are participating in employer-sponsored defined contribution (DC) plans at a record high rate.

Aon Hewitt's analysis of DC saving and investing behaviors of more than 3 million employees across 120 large companies, shows that more than three quarters (75.8 percent) of eligible employees participated in their company's defined contribution plan in 2010 — the highest level since Aon Hewitt began tracking this data in 2002. This is up from 73.7 percent in 2009 and 67.2 percent in 2005.

This record-high participation rate is due in large part to the rapid adoption of automatic enrollment. Three in five employers automatically enrolled employees into their defined contribution plans in 2010, up from 24 percent in 2006. For employees who were subject to automatic enrollment, Aon Hewitt's analysis found that 85.3 percent participated in their DC plan, 18 percentage points higher than those that were not subject to automatic enrollment. However, most companies (85 percent of those offering automatic enrollment) only automatically enroll new hires, resulting in the gradual uptick in participation rates.

"Employers are increasingly concerned that their workers are not adequately prepared to meet their future retirement savings needs," explained Pamela Hess, director of retirement research at Aon Hewitt. "Automatically enrolling employees in company-sponsored DC plans is an easy way for companies to encourage workers to save more. However, this really is only a nudge in the right direction."

Aon Hewitt's analysis also found that before tax contributions to DC plans were unchanged from 2009 at 7.3 percent of pay, but are still down slightly from pre-recession levels in 2007 (7.7 percent). For workers that are automatically enrolled in the plan, automation may actually hinder the amount of money they are contributing. Participants who were subject to automatic enrollment contributed one percentage point less, on average, than their actively enrolled counterparts (6.8 percent, compared to 7.8 percent). This significant gap is due to low default rates among the bulk of employers. More than three quarters of plans (76 percent) default contribution rates at 4 percent or less.

"Saving even just one percent less over a career has a dramatic impact on accumulation," cautioned Hess. "Ultimately, it can lead to nearly a 15 percent loss in retirement income."

In addition to generally low contribution rates, many workers still aren't contributing enough to their 401(k) plan to receive matching employer contributions. Overall, nearly three in ten (29.4 percent) of plan participants contributed below the company match threshold, up slightly from 2009 (28.2 percent).

Among participants who were defaulted, this picture is bleaker. Forty-one percent of participants who were automatically enrolled are not saving enough to receive the full match from their employers, compared to only 25 percent of participants who proactively enrolled.  

"To drive higher savings rates, companies should consider combining automatic enrollment with automatic contribution escalation and target-date portfolios," explained Hess. "Additionally, defaulting workers contribution levels at, or greater than the employer-match rate will also ensure greater success for employees struggling to save for retirement. Employers can also periodically back-sweep participants—or automatically enroll any worker who is not currently participating in the 401(k) plan—to ensure they are reaching all employees on an ongoing basis, rather than only at the point of hire."

Other Key Findings

  • Cumulatively, workers on average saved 10.4 percent of pay, including 3.8 percent from employer contributions.
  • The average employee's total plan balance was $76,020 at the end of 2010, while the median balance was $24,680.
  • The three largest asset class exposures (equally weighted) were premixed portfolios (33.3 percent), large U.S. equity (14.2 percent) and GIC/stable value funds (13.6 percent).
  • The average worker's overall exposure to equities rose 67.4 percent in 2010, up from 66.9 percent in 2009.
  • The median rate of return earned by employees in 2010 was 13.5 percent, down from 24.3 percent in 2009. The median, annualized, three-year rate of return earned (from 2008-2010) was just 1.7 percent, illustrating the dramatic impact losses in 2008 had on participant results.
  • When available, 60.1 percent of workers invested at least partially in premixed portfolios, mainly driven by the popularity of target-date funds. Among those using premixed portfolios, just under half (46 percent) were fully invested in a single portfolio.  
  • Despite strong market returns in 2009, only 14.2 percent of employees made any sort of fund transfer in 2010, down from 16.2 percent in 2009.
  • Nearly three in ten participants (27.6 percent) had a loan outstanding at the end of 2010, the highest in the ten years that Aon Hewitt has been tracking loans.
  • In 2010, 6.9 percent of workers took a withdrawal from their DC plan, close to the record high of 7.1 percent in 2009. Among these, 20 percent were hardship withdrawals.

About Aon Hewitt

Aon Hewitt is the global leader in human resource consulting and outsourcing solutions.  The company partners with organizations to solve their most complex benefits, talent and related financial challenges, and improve business performance.  Aon Hewitt designs, implements, communicates and administers a wide range of human capital, retirement, investment management, health care, compensation and talent management strategies.  With more than 29,000 professionals in 90 countries, Aon Hewitt makes the world a better place to work for clients and their employees.  For more information on Aon Hewitt, please visit

About Aon

Aon Corporation (NYSE:AON) is the leading global provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human resources solutions and outsourcing. Through its more than 59,000 colleagues worldwide, Aon unites to deliver distinctive client value via innovative and effective risk management and workforce productivity solutions. Aon's industry-leading global resources and technical expertise are delivered locally in over 120 countries. Named the world's best broker by Euromoney magazine's 2008, 2009 and 2010 Insurance Survey, Aon also ranked highest on Business Insurance's listing of the world's insurance brokers based on commercial retail, wholesale, reinsurance and personal lines brokerage revenues in 2008 and 2009. A.M. Best deemed Aon the number one insurance broker based on revenues in 2007, 2008 and 2009, and Aon was voted best insurance intermediary 2007-2010, best reinsurance intermediary 2006-2010, best captives manager 2009-2010, and best employee benefits consulting firm 2007-2009 by the readers of Business Insurance. Visit for more information on Aon and to learn about Aon's global partnership and shirt sponsorship with Manchester United.

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This is a press release issued by the company named above. BenefitsLink is not the author. Use of any information obtained from this release is voluntary, and reliance on it should only be undertaken after an independent review of its accuracy, completeness, efficacy, and timeliness. Reference to any specific commercial product, process, or service by trade name, trademark, service mark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by BenefitsLink.

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