Workers appear to have little faith that the economic recovery and the stock market's climb have left them better-prepared for retirement.
Confidence in the ability to afford a comfortable retirement remains at the same record low level recorded in 2011, and is slightly lower than last year, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, which has conducted the study the past 23 years.
Nearly half of workers surveyed in January had little or no confidence that they'll have a financially comfortable retirement, EBRI said Tuesday. Twenty-eight percent were not at all confident — the highest level recorded since the survey began in 1991 — with 21 percent saying they were not too confident.
About 13 percent were very confident and 38 percent somewhat confident, figures that weren't substantially greater than the record lows in the 2011 survey.
If there's any positive takeaway, it's that researchers believe workers who are the least prepared for retirement have become increasingly aware that they need to save more.
In 2007, for example, confidence numbers were substantially higher before the economy sank into a recession. Seventy percent were either somewhat confident or very confident that year.
The decline in confidence in recent years suggests "a much higher degree of realism" about the need to increase savings rates, said Jack VanDerhei, EBRI's research director, and co-author of the report.
That could explain why confidence remains low, despite the economy's gains since the recession and a market rally that lifted the Dow Jones industrial average to a record high two weeks ago.
Despite the realization that they're not saving enough, short-term financial needs are so pressing that long-term goals become secondary.
"Job security and financial security continue to be Americans' major concerns, not retirement," VanDerhei said.
In addition to worrying about their retirement savings, workers "lack confidence in their ability to pay for medical expenses, and even basics such as food, clothing and shelter," he said.
The survey was co-sponsored by EBRI, a private nonprofit research organization, and Matthew Greenwald & Associates, a market research firm. Two-dozen public and private organizations, including financial services companies, provided funding. About 1,000 U.S. workers aged 25 and older and 250 retirees were randomly chosen for telephone interviews in January. The statistical margin of error is plus or minus 3 percent.
The researchers concluded that fewer than half of workers appear to be taking basic steps needed to prepare for retirement. For example, 46 percent of those surveyed reported that they or their spouse had tried to estimate how much they'll need to save by retirement to ensure that they could live comfortably. The rest made no such calculation.
Two percent of workers and 4 percent of retirees said that saving or planning for retirement was the most pressing financial issue that most Americans face. Both groups were most likely to identify job uncertainty as the most pressing concern (30 percent of workers and 27 percent of retirees) followed by meeting day-to-day needs (12 percent for each group).
Participants cited the cost of living and daily expenses as the key reasons why workers either don't contribute to workplace savings plans such as 401(k)s or don't contribute enough.
Fifty-five percent of workers and 39 percent of retirees reported having a problem with their debt levels. About half said they could definitely come up with $2,000 if an unexpected need arose within the next month.