Table of Contents
Table of Contents

Pension vs. Social Security Retirement Plans: What's the Difference?

Pension vs. Social Security: An Overview

There are many different types of income that retired folks draw on, depending on what their life was like during their working days. Two of the most widely-known income streams today include pensions and Social Security, two programs funded and structured in totally different ways.

Pensions are typically workplace retirement plans, in which an employer makes contributions to a pool of funds on behalf of employees. Social Security is handled by the federal government and funded through payroll taxes collected from employees and companies.

Read on for more about how the two programs are structured and how each may benefit retirees who have paid into such programs.

Key Takeaways

  • Retirement income can be guaranteed through a company's defined-benefit pension plan and federally funded Social Security.
  • Fewer companies offer guaranteed pensions but offer workers 401(k) plans, which are self-directed investments intended to generate retirement income.
  • Social Security is a government-guaranteed basic income for older Americans, funded through a special tax paid by employees and employers.
  • For most retirees without a pension, Social Security will not be enough; other types of retirement savings, like a 401(k) or an IRA, are encouraged.


Before the advent of IRAs and 401(k) plans, there were pensions. Your parents and grandparents, if they worked for the same company for many years, may have enjoyed generous pension benefits. Pensions nowadays are known officially as defined-benefit plans because the payment amount you'll receive in retirement is decided or defined in advance.

A private pension is a retirement account created by an employer for their employees’ future benefit. Employers, governed by certain laws and regulations, contribute on behalf of employees and invest the money as they see fit. Upon retirement, the employee receives monthly payments. State government employees frequently have pension systems as well. For example, in Ohio, state workers pay into the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System in lieu of Social Security.

The private pension payout depends upon several factors, such as how long you worked for the employer as well as what your salary was. In some cases, you can choose a lump-sum payment or a monthly annuity check. In the past, employers were required to maintain excess pension assets within the plan and were not to use the funds for other expenses. This law was put in place so that when needed by retirees, the money would be available to be paid out to eligible retired individuals. It also ensured that excess pension monies were available to offset the times when investment returns were lower than expected.

Many years ago, employers encouraged Congress to amend the pension rules and allow them to use money in over-funded pension plans for other employee benefits, such as retiree health plans and early-retirement payments. In her book "Retirement Heist: How Companies Plunder and Profit from the Nest Eggs of American Workers," Ellen Schultz relates how these changes led many companies to move pension assets into unrelated company coffers. That resulted in a mass downsizing of pension monies and, ultimately, underfunded pension funds.

Private-sector pensions are gradually becoming obsolete, but over 44 million Americans still remain covered by them. Pensions, in general, are considered qualified employer-sponsored plans, which makes them subject to required minimum distribution (RMD) rules. This means participants must begin taking distributions at the age of 72 or face a penalty. Provisions for distributions before 72 can vary. Many participants begin distributions at the age of 65. 

Social Security

Although many seniors receive Social Security benefits in retirement, the Social Security system isn't considered a pension. It may look like a pension because upon retirement (if you have paid into the system during your working years), you are eligible to receive monthly benefits. These benefits can begin at the age of 62.

The amount of the check varies based on the age at which you begin receiving benefits as well as how many years you worked and the amounts you earned while you were contributing to the program. Social Security isn't designed to fully replace your income or meet all of your financial needs in retirement.

Social Security is funded by a pay-as-you-go system. This means that while you are working, you pay into the system. On your pay stub, the entry for Social Security taxes is listed as FICA. Some of the payments you make while working go to fund retirees’ benefits as well as those remunerations of other Social Security recipients.

Key Differences

There are several other distinctions between pensions and Social Security. Social Security offers a disability insurance program that covers workers with enough credits (earned through work and payment into the system) if they become disabled. Pensions normally don’t provide disability benefits unless the employee is disabled in an on-the-job accident.

Although spouses may receive a partial pension payment, it’s unlikely that a child would also benefit from pension income—as is the case with Social Security. Finally, pensions may offer a lump-sum payout upon retirement. This option is not available through the Social Security system.

Both pensions and Social Security may provide an income stream to retirees. Pensions can begin as early as 55, are usually taken around age 65, and must begin to be withdrawn at age 72. Social Security can begin at age 62.

Pensions and Social Security operate for the same goal—to provide retirement funds—but they are not funded and structured in the same ways, which leads to different challenges for each. While the federal Social Security system will likely continue to provide aid to the disabled and elderly for many years—though by how much remains to be seen—private pension-plan systems are dying out, being replaced by defined contribution plans such as IRAs and 401(k) plans.

Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Department of Labor. "Retirement Plans Benefits and Savings."

  2. Social Security Administration. "How is Social Security financed?"

  3. U.S. Department of Labor. "Types of Retirement Plans."

  4. Georgetown University Law Center. "A Timeline of the Evolution of Retirement in the United States," Pages 1-4.

  5. Ohio Public Employees Retirement System. "What is OPERS?"

  6. Ellen E. Schultz. "Retirement Heist: How Companies Plunder and Profit from the Nest Eggs of American Workers," Introduction. Penguin, 2011.

  7. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. "PBGC Pension Insurance: We've Got You Covered."

  8. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Plan and IRA Required Minimum Distributions FAQs."

  9. Social Security Administration. "You Can Receive Benefits Before Your Full Retirement Age."

  10. Social Security Administration. "Your Retirement Benefit: How It's Figured," Page 1.

  11. Social Security Administration. "What is FICA?"

  12. Social Security Administration. "Benefits for People with Disabilities."

  13. Social Security Administration. "Benefits Planner: Survivors."

  14. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics - Significant Ages for Retirement Plan Participants."

  15. Congressional Research Service. "Worker Participation in Employer-Sponsored Pensions: A Fact Sheet," Page 1.

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