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Ever since the financial crisis began almost four years ago, many retirees and near-retirees have grown increasingly concerned about their financial prospects during retirement. That made plenty of sense, as stock markets had crashed and many workers had suffered huge losses in their retirement savings.

But after a three-year bull market that has led the Dow and S&P 500 to double in value, you'd think that many of those investors would have regained their confidence. Yet as this year's version of one of the most detailed retirement surveys available shows, very few people feel good about their prospects for a happy retirement.

Dire straits for retirement hopefuls
Every year, the Employee Benefit Research Institute releases its retirement confidence survey. The survey collects data on a wide range of information related to retirement, ranging from current savings to work that people have done to try to figure out and plan for their retired years.

Some of this year's results are especially troubling:

  • Only 14% of Americans are very confident that they'll have enough money to retire comfortably, up just a percentage point from last year.
  • 60% of workers have less than $25,000 set aside in savings and investments. Only two-thirds of workers indicate that they've saved anything at all for retirement, meaning that they're totally reliant on Social Security and any pension income they may receive for their livelihood.
  • There's a big disconnect between planning and reality when it comes to timing your retirement. Although workers plan more than ever to delay their retirement, half of all actual retirees report that they ended up retiring earlier than they had initially planned. Similarly, 70% expect to work at least part-time in their retirement, but only 27% of current retirees actually do work.

In addition, certain niche-focused questions raise other concerns. For instance, less than 10% of workers are very confident that they'll have enough money to pay long-term care expenses after they retire. With Prudential (NYSE: PRU  ) and MetLife (NYSE: MET  ) having stopped taking applications for long-term care insurance -- perhaps due to the challenging economics of offering it -- it's only getting harder for people to protect themselves from potentially catastrophic expenses.

Similarly, Genworth (NYSE: GNW  ) has given up on offering variable annuities. With Travelers (NYSE: TRV  ) and Hartford Financial (NYSE: HIG  ) facing increasingly difficult challenges from low levels of interest income, they may become less able to provide valuable insurance coverage to their customers. All this suggests that the safety nets that are available to retirees may get a lot less effective in the years ahead.

One of the biggest indicators of confidence is how much debt a worker carries. Workers with no debt problems are almost six times more likely to be extremely confident about their retirement prospects than those with major debt problems.

How to fix the problem
Solving the retirement crisis is obviously a tough task, especially in a struggling economy. Although it's never too late to start saving, those who are well into their careers and have modest incomes and little or no savings face the reality of a ceiling on their ability to build a sizable retirement nest egg.

For those workers who still have a lot of time remaining before they reach retirement age, the solutions are somewhat simpler -- though far from easy to implement. Even if many have discarded the old assumption about earning a 10% annual return on stocks, it's still true that the earlier you start saving, the less money you have to come up with.

Moreover, it's clear from the lack of improvement in confidence levels that many workers have either given up on stocks or never invested in them in the first place. With rates on bonds stuck in the 2% to 3% range, it's imperative to get mainstream Americans to recognize the better returns available from the stock market -- as well as the wealth-destroying impact that taxation and inflation can have on supposedly safe investments.

Don't give up
Retirement may be beyond the reach of many Americans, but it doesn't have to elude you. By making preparations now, you can make the most of whatever resources you have. You may not end up with the perfect retirement, but you'll be in a much better position than your peers to weather any financial storms -- and that peace of mind is definitely worthy of some effort.

To get more help, check out The Motley Fool's special report on retirement. Inside, you'll find three promising stock picks for long-term investors, along with some tips on how to invest for your golden years. It's free, but don't wait; get your report today while it's still available.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger is pretty confident about his retirement but superstitious enough not to want to trumpet it out. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Fool's disclosure policy fights doom every day.

Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (5)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On April 10, 2012, at 10:04 AM, jpanspac wrote:

    I'm becoming more and more exasperated by articles like this that confuse work and retirement. If you're working you haven't retired. What's so hard to understand about that?

  • Report this Comment On April 10, 2012, at 11:31 AM, ryanalexanderson wrote:

    > I'm becoming more and more exasperated by articles like this that confuse work and retirement. If you're working you haven't retired. What's so hard to understand about that?

    Splitting hairs. If you accept day-to-day remuneration with minimal long-term benefits for a task that you choose to do, and could walk away from equably, you're retired.

  • Report this Comment On April 10, 2012, at 4:37 PM, rossirina wrote:

    I am sold – read a lot about contributing up to the limit to qualified retirement plans, the importance of starting earlier rater than later etc.,

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