Define: Pension

Business, Legal & Accounting Glossary

Definition: Pension

Quick Summary of Pension

A program that supplies employees with retirement income after they meet minimum age and service obligations.

What is the dictionary definition of Pension?

Dictionary Definition

  1. A wage or fee.
  2. A charge or expense of some kind; a tax.
  3. A regular allowance paid to support a royal favourite, or as patronage of an artist or scholar.
  4. An annuity paid regularly as a benefit due to a retired employee, serviceman etc. in consideration of past services, originally and chiefly by a government but also by various private pension schemes.
  5. A boarding house or small hotel, especially in continental Europe, which typically offers lodging and certain meals and services.
  6. A boarding school in France, Belgium, Switzerland, etc.
  7. To grant a pension
  8. To force someone to retire on a pension.


Full Definition of Pension

A pension (also known as superannuation) is a retirement plan intended to provide a person with a secure income for life. Although a lottery may provide a pension, the common use of the term is to describe the payments a person receives upon retirement.

Pensions have traditionally been payments made in the form of a guaranteed annuity to a retired or disabled employee, or to a deceased employee’s spouse, children, or other beneficiary. A pension created by an employer for the benefit of an employee is commonly referred to as an occupational or employer pension. Labor unions, the government, or other organizations may also sponsor pension provision.

Types of pensions

A pension plan that provides a guaranteed benefit is commonly called a defined benefit pension plan. The benefit in a defined benefit pension plan is determined by a formula based on the employee’s pay, years of employment and age at retirement to calculate the guaranteed payment. The United States Social Security system is an example of a defined benefit pension arrangement.

Defined benefit pension plans formerly dominated pension provision in both the private and public sector. However, a guaranteed, or “defined” benefit is no longer the universal pension payment model. Instead, the benefit may be based solely on the value of the accumulated assets in a pension fund at the time payment is to begin.

A pension of this kind is commonly called a defined contribution plan. In a defined contribution pension, the employer, the employee or both make contributions into an individual investment fund. This fund is invested in underlying investments, such as company shares, and will move in line with the return on these investments. At retirement, and occasionally in other circumstances, the individual draws income from the fund. Purchasing an annuity, which provides a secure income for life, from an insurance company, often does this.

In a defined contribution plan, investment risk and investment rewards are assumed by each individual/employee/retiree and not by the sponsor/employer. In the United States, the most common example of a defined contribution employer pension is the 401(k) Plan. As an incentive to encourage workers to contribute more to defined contribution plans, some governments have instituted significant tax advantages for doing so. The widespread use of defined contribution plans helps to alleviate the burden on state-sponsored pensions, such as Social Security.


There are various ways in which a pension may be financed. In a funded pension, contributions are paid into a fund during an individual’s working life. The fund will be invested in assets, such as stocks, bonds and property, and grow in line with the return on these assets.
In an unfunded pension no assets are set aside and the benefits are paid for by the employer or other pension sponsor as and when they are paid. Pension arrangements provided by the state in most countries in the world are unfunded, with benefits paid directly from current workers’ contributions and taxes. This method of financing is known as Pay-as-you-go. It has been suggested that this model bears a disturbing resemblance to a Ponzi scheme.

In a funded defined benefit arrangement, if the employee’s contributions and accumulated earnings are not sufficient to pay the guaranteed or “defined” benefit, the sponsor must cover the shortfall with additional contributions. Sponsors employ actuaries to calculate the contributions that need to be made to ensure that the pension fund will meet future payment obligations. This means that in a defined benefit pension, investment risk and investment rewards are typically assumed by the sponsor/employer and not by the individual.

A growing challenge for many nations is population ageing. As birth rates drop and life expectancy increases and ever larger portion of the population is elderly. This leaves fewer workers for each retired person. In almost all developed countries this means that the pension system will eventually go broke unless reformed. The three exceptions are Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom where the pension system will be solvent for the foreseeable future. In Canada, for instance, the annual payments were increased by some 70% in 1998 to achieve this. These three nations also have an advantage from their relative openness to immigration.

Pensions in the United States

  • 1940s: General Motors chairman Charles Erwin Wilson designs the first modern pension fund. He said that it should invest in all stocks, not just GM.
  • 1963: Studebaker terminates its pension plan, leaving employees with no legal recourse for their pension promises.
  • 1974: Employee’s Retirement Security Act (ERISA) — imposes fiduciary obligations on U.S. plan sponsors and establishes the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation to ensure benefits for participants in terminated plans. Championed by Senator Jacob_K._Javits.
  • By the 1970s: Independent stock analysts’ (called fiduciaries) job is to make pension-fund investments pay up for their pension beneficiaries. State laws prevent fiduciaries from favoring any company or taking big risks. If fiduciaries lose money on pension investments, they can be sued for malpractice. This scares away banks. Banks wouldn’t handle pensions. Small businesses opened for managing pension funds.
  • Today: 40% of American common stock is owned by pension funds and retirement funds.
  • Growth and Decline of Defined Benefit Pension Plans in the United States. In 1980 there were approximates 250,000 qualified defined benefit pension plans covered by the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation. By 2020, there are less than 80,000 qualified plans.


Examples of Pension in a sentence

Many employers now offer retirement accounts such as 401(k) plans instead of pensions.
She had worked for the company for thirty years, but when she retired, her pension only covered half of her living expenses.
Many old people depend on their pension to pay the bills.

Cite Term

To help you cite our definitions in your bibliography, here is the proper citation layout for the three major formatting styles, with all of the relevant information filled in.

Page URL
Modern Language Association (MLA):
Pension. Payroll & Accounting Heaven Ltd. April 06, 2020
Chicago Manual of Style (CMS):
Pension. Payroll & Accounting Heaven Ltd. (accessed: April 06, 2020).
American Psychological Association (APA):
Pension. Retrieved April 06, 2020, from website:

Definition Sources

Definitions for Pension are sourced/syndicated and enhanced from:

  • A Dictionary of Economics (Oxford Quick Reference)
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Accounting
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Business & Management

This glossary post was last updated: 14th February, 2020