Retirement plan participation has increased 19% in the past five years because of design features that make it simple and quick for employees to participate in their workplace retirement plans.

Wells Fargo Institutional Retirement and Trust examined the savings behaviors of 4 million defined contribution plan participants from 5,000 companies and found that features such as automatic defaults into diversified investments, target-date funds and automatic escalation have had a huge effect on employee savings rates.

The company’s Plan Health Index is a retirement plan health measure that includes a plan’s participation and savings rates and its diversification as a measure of employee retirement readiness.

Employees “have to join the plan, be saving at an adequate rate and be adequately diversified for their time horizon. If they are doing all three of those things well, they have a good chance for a good outcome, assuming they started saving early enough,” says Joe Ready, executive vice president and director of institutional retirement and trust at Wells Fargo.

To score well on the Wells Fargo Plan Health Index, employees need to participate in their workplace plan, save at 10% or higher, including the employer matching contribution, and have their retirement savings in diverse investments.

“Plan health across our book of business increased 37% from five years ago,” Ready says.

Participation increased 19%, contributions were up 7.3% from five years ago and diversification improved 26%, according to Wells Fargo research.

Generationally, millennials are reaping the biggest benefit from this industry shift toward automatic features. They have essentially grown up with these options, Ready says, and they have the highest increase in participation in the last five years. They also are the most diversified generation, taking advantage of target-date funds and other managed account options.

Millennials are also taking advantage of Roth 401(k) features at a higher rate than other generations. Wells Fargo found that 16% of millennials are taking advantage of a Roth option, compared to 12% of other participants.

“They are engaged,” Ready says. “They are thinking about their future taxes and tax diversification. That’s pretty good.”

The key drivers of plan participation are income, automatic features, tenure and age, Ready says. Wells Fargo analyzed tenure and found that once a company’s employees are hired and with the company for two years, their attrition rates tend to drop off dramatically.

Ready encourages employers to design their retirement plans so that loyal employees, those who have stayed longer than two years, are eligible for the employer matching contribution. It’s a balance between helping employees achieve their retirement goals and wanting to invest in those who are invested in their company, he said.

The way the matching contribution is designed can also have a major impact on how much employees save for retirement. If a company switches from contributing 50 cents on the first 3% to 25% on the first 6%, it automatically gets employees saving an additional 3% they wouldn’t save otherwise. Automatic increase is another feature that is underutilized, according to Ready.

Many companies set their automatic increase at 1% per year with an opt-out option. Ready says that whether the auto increase is 1% or 2%, the opt-out percentage is the same, so why not make the auto escalation 2% per year, bringing employees closer to that 10% savings rate sooner?

“It makes a material difference, especially at a younger age, to get to a higher savings rate quicker. It makes a big difference in outcome,” Ready says.

Two-thirds of Wells Fargo’s clients use an auto increase program, but “less than 30% of those plans implemented it on an opt-out basis,” the research found.

Having an opt-out option — meaning employees have to make the effort to opt out of the increase – takes advantage of participant inertia, Wells Fargo reported. Even with an opt-out option, 79% of plan participants stayed with the automatic increase on their retirement savings accounts.

Millennials tend to be more diversified in their retirement investments than older generations, due in large part to by the increase of automatic features in plans. Because of that, Wells Fargo found that 78% of millennials are on track to replace 80% of their pay in retirement, compared to 62% for Generation X and 50% for baby boomers.

“Some of that has to do with the fact that millennials are getting into the plan at an early age, saving early and diversifying appropriately with managed products,” Ready says.

That said, only 28.6% of millennials are contributing to their retirement account at the 10% level, compared to 35.2% for Generation X and 44.5% for the boomers.

“I’m very bullish on millennials, the way they are participating and the way they are engaging in the Roth
and leveraging diversification products in their plans,” Ready says. “If they keep increasing their savings rate, they have the power of time.”

Ready says he expects the trend toward automatic features in retirement plans to continue. He also sees a future rise in technology with a purpose. Wells Fargo has a mobile app that gives employees a one-click option to sign up for their company retirement plan. The company will send a text to all new employees with a link to the retirement plan sign-up page. It might say, “You are eligible to join our 401(k) plan.” When the participant clicks on the link, it takes her to a pre-filled screen that tells her what the default saving rate is and the default investments. If the employee is happy with the defaults, all she has to do is click the enroll button.

“We have seen a material increase in the number of people enrolling because of that,” Ready says.

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