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A major change is occurring in the pension plans of Americans.

More and more companies are switching from "defined benefit" plans to "defined contribution" plans. That's not necessarily bad for workers, but it shifts the financial risks of an uncertain future from companies to employees.

Defined benefit plans are traditional pension plans. Companies have to commit now to paying a set monthly pension 20 or 30 years down the road, probably based on a formula combining an employee's career earnings and years of service. No matter what happens in the interim, the employee is assured of a set monthly check at retirement.

In defined contribution plans, companies merely commit a fixed level of payments into some kind of account on the employee's behalf. Most likely, it will take the form of a 401(k) contribution or a profit-sharing account. At retirement, the employee gets whatever is in the account: It could be a better or worse deal than the traditional pension, depending upon how the investment performed over the years.

A survey by TPF&C, a New York management consulting firm, found that the number of 401(k) plans grew by 50 percent from 1982 to 1989 and profit-sharing plans grew by 25 percent. The number of traditional pension plans dropped by 2 percent.

Of course the luckiest employees are those covered by both kinds of plans, or working spouses each covered by opposite plans. That way, all bets are hedged.

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