The social meaning of financial wealth: Relational accounting in the context of 401(k) retirement accounts

Finance and Society, 5(1): 61-83. https://doi.org/10.2218/finsoc.v5i1.3018
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This article draws on and extends Viviana Zelizer’s social meaning of money framework in conjunction with new work in ‘relational accounting’ to suggest a sociological counterpoint, focusing in particular on the social and symbolic meaning attached to individual 401(k) retirement accounts. Following a market downturn, neoclassical and behavioral economics predict various types of behavioral responses, in particular loss aversion – where investors seek to increase risk-taking rather than locking in a sure loss (a loss is more painful to bear than an equivalent gain). A sociological theory that understands the shared meaning of retirement saving would predict something different, a behavior I call durable conservatism. In this article, I show how this concept better explains observed risk behavior in Americans’ 401(k) accounts following the 2002 and 2008 bear markets …