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Recordkeeper Corner

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A leadership conversation on lifetime income

There aren’t many Hollywood blockbusters that focus on the intrigue of retirement plan record-keeping, and few people launch their careers in finance with the goal of getting into the glamorous world of 401(k) plans. But that’s too bad: Recordkeepers play a critical role in ensuring that American workers can easily save for retirement and that employers stay competitive and on the right side of the (everchanging) law. They play a key role in day-to-day plan operations and shine a light on what the future of retirement could look like. With the recent passage of two big pieces of retirement legislation in the SECURE Acts and a cascade of smaller but important initiatives working their way through Congress, nextAdvisor wanted to chat with one of the largest record-keepers to get the lay of the land for our inaugural issue. Brendan McCarthy, Nuveen’s head of retirement investing, sat down with Tina Wilson of Empower  to dig into some of the most pressing issues facing retirement plans today.

A conversation between Tina Wilson, CFA, Executive Vice President & Chief Product Officer, Empower and Brendan McCarthy, Head of Retirement Investing, Nuveen

Brendan: We’ve both been in this industry for some time, and we’ve seen some seismic shifts. When we joined the industry, many employees had their 401(k) sitting in a money-market fund and there was very little conversation around how to invest or how to live off your savings. Thinking a bit more recently, what do you see as the most significant change to the retirement industry? 

Tina: The traditional three-legged stool of retirement income has changed greatly over the years, with the length and strength of each leg adjusting to bear the weight of retirement income differently. Historically, employees had a defined benefit (DB) pension plan, Social Security and, potentially, a personal savings plan. Combined, that provided for a pretty healthy paycheck in retirement. However, most companies have frozen or terminated their DB plans. As of March 2023, only 15% of private-industry workers had access to a defined-benefit retirement plan, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.1

Brendan: This transition from DB plans to DC plans shifts investment risk from the company to the participant. While we have developed ways to help participants accumulate assets through auto-enrollment, auto-escalation and QDIAs (qualified default investment accounts), what other transformations have we seen?

Tina: We’ve also seen transformative shifts among the workforce and employees themselves. For example, employers are seeing more and more employees work past typical retirement age because they cannot afford to retire. Keeping older workers — who tend to be higher earners — on their payroll increases benefit costs and, depending on the industry, can introduce additional risk. This shift is happening fairly quickly: In 2002, about 5% of people over age 75 were working in the U.S.; that number is expected to double by 2032.2

Brendan: We’re definitely noticing a shift from a relentless emphasis on saving to a focus on how to manage those savings in retirement and how to convert that basket of assets into an income stream. Ten years ago, when we first met, you were a passionate advocate of lifetime income solutions. How did the work we did in the past set us up for the current sea-change

Tina: As an industry, we have talked about decumulation of retirement for many years, but we’ve struggled to give participants the help they need to take that nest egg and convert it into a paycheck in retirement.

Now, the industry is ready to bring this to market. We’ve been working for over ten years to bring everyone into this journey. Consultants, plan participants, advisors and plans sponsors all had to be ready for this to be successful, and now the demand that we see is real. The work we did all those years ago wasn’t wasted as it set the stage for what we’re doing today. We built that foundation to allow us to best serve participants in the plan.

We’re also seeing increasing concerns around the future of Social Security. Deep reforms are needed to ensure that there aren’t major cuts made to benefits once the trust fund is expected to be exhausted in 2034. Social Security is a major source of guaranteed income for a large number of retirees, and its future is clouded.3

Washington has also made retirement income a priority. The SECURE Act opened the door with legislation focused on portability, safe harbor, and income illustrations on participant statements — and we as an industry need to walk through that door. And recordkeepers aren’t alone here — 58% of plan sponsors are looking to keep assets in their plans after a participant retires to benefit from keeping the plan at a larger size. And that will require decumulation strategies to come to the forefront.4

Brendan: Empower has been one of the leaders in talking about the need for retirement income. What’s your approach? How are you creating better outcomes?

Tina: We have been talking with plan sponsors and advisors, helping to educate on the importance of adding a retirement income feature to their plans.

We understand there is not a one-size-fits-all approach for plan sponsors, and plan participants have unique needs. Since there are so many different retirement income products available in the marketplace, it is important to focus on simplicity and give plan sponsors and advisors choice.

We have our own in-house benefit consulting group, made up of actuaries who can help plan sponsors optimize their plan designs so that employees can retire on time with the right long-term financial benefits.

We have multiple retirement income products on our platform and also provide the financial and emotional support participants need through a variety of tools, financial planning support and webinars.

We have to strive to keep these products simple. Earlier in my career I worked with retail annuities, which are incredibly innovative and complex, but they’re meant to be sold one-on-one, and the client can have that detailed conversation with their advisor. For retirement plans, we need to keep the product simple to make it successful. We need to capture the upside for the participant and give them that income certainty, and by making it less complex we can add even more value.

Brendan: Let’s talk a bit more about the participant experience and the need to simplify for the participant. I feel like this is one aspect that the industry has yet to get right. How do you think about this?

Tina: We spend a lot of time giving advice during accumulation, but during decumulation participants need the right answers to be better able to balance their risks and requirements.

We need to get it right during decumulation, and a significant way to achieve that is with a guaranteed lifetime income piece.

We believe retirement income should be personalized, holistic and advised.

Personalized because no two retirement journeys are the same. Some people will travel the world, others prefer to spend time at home with loved ones. Holistic because we need to think about household assets, including a spouse/partner, as well as retirement and non-retirement savings.

And advised because these are complex conversations. Many people want a professional by their side to help figure out if they need guaranteed income and how much, when to start taking Social Security, and how to account for healthcare expenses.

At Empower we have the professionals and tools to help individuals through this journey and are ready to guide them on ways to help achieve their goals.

Portability is also one area worth discussing. As more and more providers introduce these solutions it will create portability in the marketplace. We’ve solved for participant portability, and we now need to work to simplify and solve the issues around plan portability if they need to change recordkeepers.

Brendan: Nuveen has been laser focused on integrating lifetime income into our products. Alongside our parent company TIAA, who has been a leader in lifetime income for over a hundred years, we firmly believe that we all need to help secure retirement for millions of Americans. How is Empower delivering lifetime income to your clients?

Tina: Empower offers in-plan and out-of-plan retirement income solutions. We believe that it is important to provide plan sponsors and advisors with choices. We offer multiple guaranteed income solutions within a managed account structure where participants have access to personalized advice.

For those plan sponsors who prefer the target-date approach, we offer multiple target-date funds with guaranteed income embedded. We also offer a variety of non-guaranteed spend-down solutions. Lastly, for plan sponsors that prefer an out-of-plan solution, we offer access to an annuity marketplace directly from our participant website.

At Empower we are highly dedicated to our customers. We like to think about the world from their perspective. I’ve found that product development can be very intellectual and creative, but it is too easy for that development to be an inside out view, not focused on the customers. Our mission is to help plan participants across the income spectrum, especially those who are underserved.

This is an area where advisors can play a critical role. Advisors need to be reaching out to product providers and recordkeepers. They need to get trained on this and be reaching out to their clients, as, if they aren’t, then somebody else probably is.

Brendan: I’ve always thought of you as one of the most innovative and forward-thinking leaders in our industry, so what are your thoughts for 2024 and beyond as we continue to innovate in this space?

Tina: Empower looks to continue to actively educate advisors, consultants, and plan sponsors on the need for in-plan retirement income and the different retirement products available. We will continue to assess income solutions and expand our product offering.

And most of all, we will strive to enhance our participant experience to support decumulation strategies that we believe will help individuals generate a paycheck in retirement so they can retire on their own time.

I also want to make something of a call to action to this industry and my peers. We must commit to a future that includes guaranteed lifetime income solutions within plans. We’ve been heading this way for some time, and now is the moment to adopt these solutions. There is a wealth of resources out there to help advisors, we just have to remember to keep these solutions simple.

Brendan: Thanks for sitting down with me, Tina. We appreciate your partnership and look forward to working hard, alongside partners like you, to deliver retirement security to more Americans.

[Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to receive our Retirement insights.]

In this issue
Retirement Lifetime income: Setting up the conversation with plan sponsors
What are the best practices for discussing lifetime income with plan sponsors? Jason Chepenik, George Fraser and Renee Scherzer discuss the value of facing this pressing conversation head on.
Retirement Closing savings gaps for participants
Getting access to a retirement plan remains a fundamental issue for many Americans. Jeff Cullen, Lisa (Garcia) Drake and Jania Stout discuss the role advisors can play in bridging the gap.
Retirement Lifetime income: Getting to implementation
It’s imperative for plan sponsors to include participants in the lifetime income implementation process. Nicole Corning, Jeff Cullen, Paula Hendrickson and Bruce Lanser evaluate different solutions.

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1 Characteristics of defined benefit retirement plans in 2022: The Economics Daily: U.S. Bureau ofLabor Statistics(
2 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, The Economics Daily, 73 percentofcivilian workers had accesstoretirement benefitsin 2023 at https://www.
3 Research:TheFutureFinancial Statusof the Social Security Program (

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This material is not intended to be a recommendation or investment advice, does not constitute a solicitation to buy, sell or hold a security or an investment strategy, and is not provided in a fiduciary capacity. The information provided does not take into account the specific objectives or circumstances of any particular investor, or suggest any specific course of action. Investment decisions should be made based on an investor’s objectives and circumstances and in consultation with his or her financial professionals.

This information does not constitute investment research as defined under MiFID.

Please note that this information should not replace a client’s consultation with a tax professional regarding their tax situation. Nuveen is not a tax advisor. Clients should consult their professional advisors before making any tax or investment decisions.

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