The trends for 401(k)s and similar accounts are the mirror opposite. In a nutshell, America is quickly converting from a defined benefit society to a defined contribution one.

Explanations for why such a deep-running change is occurring vary widely. In Delphi's case, Miller has said the answer is simple: The firm's competitors don't provide generous pensions or retiree health benefits, so it can't either. But many business and political leaders trace the move from defined benefit to defined contribution to fundamental shifts in the economy and work.

"The nation used to have big units of production like the car companies that needed very predictable workforces," said Alicia H. Munnell, a retirement expert at Boston College and former Clinton administration economist. "Pensions helped firms to retain people by raising employees' benefits the longer they stayed, and to signal them when it was time to go.

"But the economy is much more competitive today," Munnell said. "For companies, that means fewer long-term promises like pensions. For workers, it means having to be agile, entrepreneurial. They have to be ready to switch jobs and employers at the drop of a hat and manage their retirement money all on their own."

Amid all of the switching and decision-making, many Americans wonder whether they will be able to lead tolerably stable lives while they work and financially secure ones when they retire. That's a special concern for Lowell Seibert, who in some sense has operated on both sides of the dividing line and has experienced some of the drawbacks of the coming economy.

Planning retirement

Seibert is the son of a unionized millwright, a job that involves setting up industrial equipment. After finishing high school in the late 1960s, he followed his father into Carpenters and Millwrights Local 171 in Youngstown, Ohio, and into the itinerant life of heavy construction.

Roaming from western Pennsylvania across Ohio to eastern Indiana, he hired on to help build steel mills, power generators, assembly plants, even college campuses. He never stayed in one place more than a year. At least at first, that suited him fine because it meant new people and new problems to solve with each new job.

In 1971, he married hospital nurse Christine Ferranti, and six years later, the couple had the first of their two daughters. He began devoting nights and weekends to building the family a new house. The project provided him the first of several glimpses into how easily his family's fate could slip beyond his control.

He purchased a lot and began work on the house in the mid-1970s, but he ran out of money after installing the driveway and basement. When he got back to the project in 1980, he had to take out an $85,000 "wrap-around" loan that included the new house and the couple's existing home. With inflation driving mortgages through the ceiling, he found himself saddled with a double-digit interest rate. Shortly after finishing the two-story Dutch Colonial in late 1981, the steel industry crashed, the Midwest skidded into recession and the Seiberts couldn't find a buyer for their old place.

Then just after the birth of his second daughter, he was thrown out of work for a year.

"We had enough to make one more house payment, then the bank was going to take both places," he said.

The family survived the close call and, with steel and the region staging a short-lived comeback, mended its finances -- only to face another round of reversals.

In 1991, Seibert landed a general foreman's job installing a continuous caster at WCI Steel Inc. in Warren. The machine, 10 stories high and about 500 feet long, is fed liquid steel from a giant ladle and casts the steel into huge flat slabs. Even today, he talks with pride about orchestrating the assembly of the device to within a few thousandths of an inch, or about the thickness of a fingernail, so that it operated smoothly on its maiden run.

But in the midst of the project, he fell 30 feet from scaffolding, and was stopped from falling much farther only by landing belly-first on a cross bar. A few months later, his father died at age 68 from what the son describes as the wear and tear of a life in construction. By the end of the year, Seibert was at Delphi.

At first, working indoors with the same people on pretty much the same problems did not sit well with him. "I was going to quit," he said. "I'd been there 13 months, and I realized I'd never held a job that long."

But gradually, he discovered the appeal of steady employment. He got home every night for dinner and was able to coach his daughters' softball team. He managed to pay for college educations for both of his children without a serious cash crunch.

And he devised what he thought was a foolproof financial plan for the couple's old age -- earning his current monthly income by drawing the equivalent of one week's pay from each of his Millwright's union pension, his Delphi pension, his Delphi stock and some outside savings.

The goal was to retire at 62, he said. "I thought we were pretty much set."

The 1984 deal