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Confidence in future is a rarity

Here's our retirement crisis in a nutshell: Americans realize that they need to work longer and save more, but in many cases they can't.

Reality intrudes in the form of layoffs, a chronically weak job market and sometimes poor health. Having skimped on saving in their younger years, folks know they should stay on the job well past age 65, but then they're forced to quit sooner.

In the Employee Benefit Research Institute's annual retirement confidence survey, 37 percent of respondents said they intend to work past 65. That's up from just 11 percent in 1991, which means that a generation of workers has largely discarded their parents' notion of a traditional retirement age.

When the EBRI talked to retirees, though, half said they had left the workforce unexpectedly. Often, having to leave ahead of schedule led to worries about having enough money to cover even basic expenses.

Folks do realize they may have to cut back. Only 14 percent of workers expressed confidence that they'll be able to afford a comfortable retirement. When pollsters asked about paying for medical expenses and long-term care, the "very confident" number falls as low as 9 percent.

The insecure majority of workers aren't just being worrywarts, either. They're responding to some very troubling trends in the economy.

"The level of job insecurity is something we hadn't found before," said Craig Copeland, a senior research associate at the EBRI. "We are seeing that even people with jobs feel that a lack of job security is one of the biggest concerns they have."

Furthermore, even people who have good jobs probably don't have a traditional pension plan, at least not in the private sector.

And most of us are falling short. More than 60 percent of workers, and 55 percent of retirees, have less than $25,000 in any form of savings, the EBRI found. That's not much, considering that many folks can expect to live 20 years or more in retirement.

When it comes to retirement-specific savings, just 58 percent of workers say they have saved anything at all. The nonsavers are disproportionately young and low-income, and in many cases their employer doesn't offer a 401(k)-type plan.

Twenty percent of workers say debt is a major issue for them, and 42 percent say it's a minor one.

It's easy to see how these problems can compound. If you're deep in debt and you lose your job, you probably will have to deplete your meager retirement savings just to make ends meet. You end up with Social Security as your only source of retirement income and, if you have to retire earlier than you had planned, your Social Security benefit is reduced accordingly.

Today, the golden years look like no-gold years for most workers. The only way out is to save more, pay down debt and take full advantage of whatever retirement plan your employer offers. If you've done all those things and you're ready for a comfortable retirement, then pat yourself on the back: You're one of the lucky ones.