About 60 percent of U.S. workers said they have less than $25,000 in savings and investments, according to an Employee Benefit Research Institute survey.
Workers' confidence in their ability to retire remains historically low, with about 14 percent saying they were very certain they'd have enough to live on comfortably, according to the report released today by EBRI, a Washington-based nonprofit that studies employee benefits. That compares with a high of 27 percent in 2007.
"People get the fact they shouldn't be optimistic, but instead of saying I'm going to save more today, they just say I'm going to defer my retirement age once I get to 65," says Jack VanDerhei, EBRI's research director and a coauthor of the study.
The savings figure doesn't include the value of a person's home and any traditional pension plan, if they have one, VanDerhei said in an interview before the study was released. The median existing single-family home price was $154,400 in January, down 2.6 percent from January 2011, according to the National Association of Realtors.
About half of all U.S. workers don't have access to a retirement savings plan through their employer and many younger people haven't been saving long enough to build a large balance, VanDerhei says of the findings.
"If you're working for an employer who doesn't sponsor one for the majority of your working career, employees just don't save on their own," he says. "So much of our retirement hopes for people depends on what they do in their defined contribution plans now."
Regulators and legislators have been looking at Americans' retirement security because life expectancies are increasing and savings have shifted from traditional pension plans, where employers generally provided retired employees with lifetime payments, to 401(k) accounts that individuals largely are responsible for funding.
EBRI worked on the study with research firm Mathew Greenwald & Associates Inc. About 1,000 workers and 259 retirees age 25 and older were interviewed by telephone in January for the survey, which EBRI has conducted for 22 years.
The low levels of confidence could be a good thing if it would prompt people to take action, says VanDerhei, but they haven't been. There are only two options: saving more now or working longer. Yet betting on working longer than age 65 rather than saving more is very risky, he says. Half of the retirees surveyed say they were forced to retire earlier than they planned because of their health, downsizing or other reasons.
Many workers have more immediate worries than saving for retirement, such as keeping their current job, the study shows. Less than one third, or only 28 percent, say they were very confident of having paid employment for as long as they need it and 16 percent say they feel their investments will increase in value.