By Blake Ellis
NEW YORK -- Concerns about job security and piles of debt have left American workers more pessimistic about retirement than ever.
Only 14 percent of workers feel "very confident" that they will have enough money to live comfortably in retirement, while 38 percent of workers say they are "somewhat confident" and 23 percent say they are "not at all confident," according to a survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. The results have remained relatively unchanged since hitting an all-time low in 2009.
Many respondents said that saving for retirement has taken a backseat to more immediate financial concerns. About 42 percent of survey respondents said a lack of job security is the biggest issue they are facing, with only 28 percent of workers saying that they feel very confident they will have a paying job for as long as they need it. Meanwhile, a whopping 62 percent -- nearly two-thirds -- of workers said their debt is a problem.
As a result, many workers barely have any savings, with about 60 percent of workers reporting total savings and investments of under $25,000 (excluding the value of their home and defined benefit plans). About 30 percent of these respondents said they have less than $1,000 in savings.
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In addition, far fewer people are saving for retirement. The percentage of workers who said they were putting money away for retirement fell to 66 percent in 2012 from 75 percent in 2009. People earning less than $35,000 account for the majority of that decline -- most likely because they have either lost their jobs or are worried that they may be out of work in the future, the report found.
"A lot of the people who have either lost their jobs or are worried about losing their jobs are trying to put a little money away for a rainy day and just don't have money to put into savings right now," said Jack VanDerhei, EBRI research director and co-author of the report.
Out of those who have started planning and saving, 67 percent say they are behind schedule. This is unchanged from 2011, but 12 percentage points higher than the 55 percent of workers who were behind schedule in 2005.
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Medical costs are also a major concern, with only 13 percent of respondents reporting that they are very confident they will be able to afford medical expenses when they retire. Only 26 percent of workers are very confident that they will even have the money to pay for basic expenses.
While workers' lack of saving and confidence in their ability to retire comfortably is troubling, VanDerhei said it's good that people are becoming more realistic about their financial situations. In 2009, following the economic downturn, many workers clung to overinflated expectations about their retirement future.
However, instead of putting more money into savings, more people are opting to delay retirement, with 37 percent of respondents expecting to retire after age 65. That's up from only 11 percent in 1991.
It's a dangerous strategy since many of these people may not be able to continue working as long as they plan to, said VanDerhei. About half of current retirees say that they left the workforce unexpectedly because of health problems, a disability, or an employer that downsized or closed, according to the report.
"[I]t's one thing to say you're going to work beyond 65, it's another to actually make it that long," he said. There was one bright spot in the survey, said VanDerhei. An increasing number of employers are automatically enrolling employees in retirement plans like 401(k)s, and many employers are automatically increasing contribution levels each year.
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Automatic enrollment has helped many lower-income workers who otherwise wouldn't choose to contribute to a plan realize that they are actually able to contribute small amounts without going broke, he said. If they can't afford to make those contributions, they can always opt out.
Workers with employer-sponsored retirement plans are typically much more confident than people without these plans, said VanDerhei. Of the workers contributing to an employer-sponsored retirement plan, 64 percent are very confident or somewhat confident that they can live comfortably through retirement. That percentage drops to 48 percent for workers without employer-sponsored plans, according to the report.
"We continue to find that employees lucky enough to be working for an employer that sponsors retirement plans -- and who choose to take advantage of it -- are not only much more likely to have a significantly higher amount of retirement savings, but also much higher confidence," said VanDerhei.
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