Consider this a splash of cold water, a dose of strong coffee, and a kick in the seat of your pants. Retirement has changed, and you can't count on the old system to take care of you anymore. This means you!

Sorry for the scare tactics, but I had to get your attention. That's because the old retirement system has been changing, and we've been slow to recognize the shift. Even those who see change on the horizon have resisted adapting to the new ways.

Our resistance to change is more than evident in the Employee Benefit Research Institute's most recent retirement confidence survey. As those researchers concluded, we think we're doing a good job preparing for retirement, but we may be overconfident. Here's a look at the difference between retirement's reality and the perceptions that mislead us. 

No more pensions
Reality: Employers have been dropping their traditional pensions faster than you can say "defined benefit plan." That's a trend affecting people in industries and companies of all sizes. A few of the big players who have dumped their pensions for 401(k) plans are UAL (NASDAQ:UAUA), US Airways (NYSE:LCC), and IBM (NYSE:IBM).

Perception: We're still counting on regular checks from pension plans to get us through retirement, even though it looks increasingly likely that they won't be there. Only four in 10 workers say they have a pension, but six in 10 expect to get income from a pension in retirement. (Maybe they know something we don't know, but pension checks don't just fall from the sky.) Even among the few workers who have personally experienced a reduction in their employer's retirement benefits, only one-third have compensated by saving more on their own. Many said they've done nothing in response.

Not saving enough
Reality: Without a pension plan to rely upon, workers must increasingly save for their own retirement. That means stashing a lot of money into accounts like IRAs and 401(k) plans, which offer tax breaks for saving.

Perception: Almost half of workers saving for retirement report that they have less than $25,000 saved or invested for retirement. (That doesn't include home equity or the value of any pension benefits that may or may not be coming their way.) Less than half of us have attempted to calculate how much we'll need in retirement.

Higher retirement age
Reality: Social Security provides an important safety net for retirees. By a law enacted almost a quarter-century ago, the age at which workers become eligible for those full benefits has been increasing. Many future retirees won't have access to those full benefits until they're older than the traditional retirement age of 65.

Perception: Only a minority of workers can name the age at which they can claim full retirement benefits from Social Security, without suffering the reduction for retiring and claiming those benefits early. Half think they'll be eligible for full benefits before the law allows.

Health insurance gaps
Reality: Companies have been dropping health care benefits for retirees at a similar, if not faster, rate than they've been abandoning their pension benefits.

Perception: Workers still expect to receive health insurance through their employers in retirement, even though the number or companies offering the benefit has been falling.

No long-term care
Reality: By some estimates, about 10% of people age 65 and older had long-term care insurance as of 2002 to help them pay for care in a nursing home, assisted living facility, or at home.

Perception: One-quarter of workers and one-third of retirees think they have long-term care insurance, leading researchers to wonder how many people are counting on coverage that they don't actually have.

Despite all this, we're optimistic people. Most of us say we're very confident or somewhat confident we'll have enough money to live comfortably through retirement. Maybe we're too optimistic. Among the people who say they're very confident about their financial security in retirement, one-quarter aren't saving for retirement, more than four in 10 have less than $50,000 in savings, and nearly four in 10 haven't even tried to calculate how much money they'll need for retirement.

Have I scared the bejesus out of you? Retirement planning requires that you master some fundamental ideas, but most importantly it requires that you start acting now. Keep reading for some guidance to help you take control of your destiny. Skip over to the Rule Your Retirement newsletter if you want to dive into much more detailed advice about planning, preparing, and pampering your retirement nest egg.

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Fool contributor Mary Dalrymple does not own stock in any company mentioned in this article. She welcomes your feedback. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.