Research

How Americans Feel About Their Retirement Prospects: Surveying the Surveys

July 3, 2024

Issue Brief | What do surveys say about how Americans feel about their ability to retire? Our analysis shows Americans hold a wide range of anxiety about their retirement futures—fueled by the retirement income shortfall faced by about half of all workers approaching retirement.

By: Teresa Ghilarducci, Karthik Manickam (with assistance from Jisu Park and Christopher D. Cook) 

 

Key Findings

  • Eight surveys on retirement confidence conducted by government bodies, research groups, and industry advocates show a wide range of retirement anxiety, from a high of 71% to a low of 32%.
  • The surveys show that people’s retirement anxieties differ based on their age, working status, and retirement status. 

 

Predictions based on current wealth trajectories of all Americans consistently show that most workers won’t have enough money to retire. Yet, eight surveys show wide ranges of anxiety about retirement. The AARP finds two-thirds of Americans are concerned about their retirement future, while the Employee Benefit Research Institute and industry surveys find less than 50% are worried. We analyze and compare the surveys. Some of the surveys ask Americans what they want the government to do. Almost all respondents want more access to retirement accounts and support government-matched retirement contributions. 

Suggested Citation: Ghilarducci, T. and Manickam, K. (2024). “How Americans Feel About Their Retirement Prospects: Surveying the Surveys.” Policy Note Series, Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at The New School for Social Research. New York, NY.

 

Projecting American Retirement Security

The state of retirement in America is grim. Increasingly, “retirement” means working into old age, with most seniors unable to support themselves on Social Security because the nation's retirement system has left behind the bottom 90% of workers. Only 10% of Americans aged 62-70 are retired,1 living at over 200% of the official poverty line, and can securely maintain their pre-retirement standard of living.2 Among households aged 55-64, the median balance in retirement accounts is just $10,000;3 meanwhile, the more fortunate half of these pre-retirement households with accounts have a median balance of only $134,000 (still not nearly enough for a secure retirement), and their level of coverage in a workplace retirement account is 57.2%. 

The situation is even more stark for households aged 65 and over—the median account balance is $0 (nothing, zero dollars), and only 36.9% of workers in this older age bracket are saving in a retirement account. This rebuts the popular “work longer” mantra that insists people can retire better if they delay retirement and continue working and saving to exit the workforce later in life. The reality is that many aren’t able to save while working in old age—instead, they lose out on retirement time. 

The National Retirement Risk Index (NRRI) at Boston College uses wealth data to determine how many workers are at risk of not maintaining their pre-retirement standard of living. Their research finds that while the share of households at risk dropped from 47 percent in 2019 to 39 percent in 2022, this drop was due to growth in the housing and stock markets following the COVID-19 pandemic. Since most households don't tap their home equity in retirement and home prices may not remain at historically high levels, these risk levels are still quite high. All of this uncertainty bears out the words of Nobel prize-winning economist William Sharpe, who said making money last a lifetime is “the nastiest problem in finance.”4

This SCEPA Issue Brief compares these stark realities with how American workers think and feel about their retirement futures. This report assesses the many surveys on Americans’ confidence about their retirement preparedness with their actual retirement. All the surveys reveal similar themes of concern and anxiety, especially among workers. The most optimistic results are based on samples of workers and retirees who have some retirement savings beyond Social Security. Each survey has certain biases caused by sample size and selection, methodology, and the questions they ask. In the appendix we describe Europeans’ retirement concerns, finding that while they also worry about retirement, their poverty rates are lower. 

 

Surveys Show Americans Are Nervous About Their Retirement Futures

Beyond their variations, the surveys suggest Americans are worried about their retirement future—and these concerns span gender, class, race, and generation. The more optimistic surveys are those of workers who are already saving or retirees with good pensions. The most pessimistic results come from surveys that sample all workers. Nearly all the surveys sampled 1000 or more respondents, and all were conducted by telephone, online through a web portal, or via e-mail. We report each survey in the order of pessimism or share of workers worried about retirement: 

  • Gallup: 71%.
  • Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking (SHED): 66%.
  • AARP: 61%.
  • National Institute on Retirement Security: 56%.
  • Goldman Sachs: 42%.
  • VoYa: 38%.
  • Economic Innovation Group: 33%.
  • Employee Benefits Retirement Institute: 32%.

 

Figure 1 – Share of Workers Worried About Retirement in Eight Surveys

Source: SCEPA tabulation using data from eight surveys.

The Gallup Poll Social Series: Economy and Personal Finance survey (April 2023)5 sampled 665 workers over age 18 and 349 retirees, revealing a great deal of anxiety among workers but less among retirees. Women workers and retirees and those without college degrees report more anxiety than those with college degrees. Among retirees, 77% said they have enough money to live comfortably. There was a gender gap: 71% of women and 61% of men said they are worried about being able to fund their retirement. Suggesting a class split, college graduates worry significantly less (56%) than those without a degree (71%). 

The Federal Reserve Board 6 Survey on Household Economics and Decisionmaking (2023) surveyed 11,400 people aged 18 and above from Ipsos’ nationally representative KnowledgePanel. SHED’s survey was administered online and weighted to match the US population. The survey does not directly ask whether respondents are worried about retirement, but instead asks, “Do you think that your retirement savings plan is currently on track?” This leaves the definition of “on track” up to the respondent’s interpretation. Only 34% of non-retirees reported feeling that their retirement savings are “on track”—meaning 66% either think their savings are not on track or they aren’t sure. This uncertainty is even higher among younger non-retirees: 74% of 18-29 year-olds said their retirement savings are not on track or they aren’t sure; 55% of 60+ year-olds said their retirement savings are not on track or they aren’t sure.

The AARP Financial Security Trends Survey7 (January 2024) is quite large, sampling 8,368 adults over age 30. This survey is especially attentive to workers in marginalized communities—Black and African; Hispanic and Latino; Asian American; and LGBTQ+. In their sample, 61% are worried about having enough money to be financially secure through retirement (compared with 63% in January 2022). More than half of retirees (57%) regret they didn’t save more, answering that they wish they had made more progress saving before retiring. Indicating widespread pessimism, only 33% of workers believe their current rate of savings is enough to be financially secure through retirement, down from 40% in January 2023.

The National Institute on Retirement Security’s (NIRS) Retirement Insecurity 2024 survey8 samples 1,208 individuals aged 25 and older, weighted by age, gender, and income. Responses show an interesting split: 79% agreed that America was facing a retirement crisis in 2023—up from 67% in 2020. But fewer, only 56%, said they personally will face a crisis and won’t have a secure retirement. 

One finding points to another feeling—anger. Regardless of political party, 87% of respondents say leaders in Washington don’t understand how hard it is for workers to save for retirement. This anger has gone up since the COVID-19 pandemic: the answer was 77% in 2020. What do people want the government to do? A strong majority, 84% of respondents, say the government should make it easier for employers to offer traditional pensions; that’s up from 77% in 2020. 

The Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies survey, now in its 24th year, surveys both workers and employers. In 2023 it surveyed over 5,700 workers9 in for-profit companies, and a representative sample of 1,873 for-profit employers.10 This survey found higher worker confidence in retirement, with 70% saying they are comfortable with their retirement savings. These relatively rosy responses may be due to surveying only workers in for-profit companies. Workers, compared to people not working, tend to have more resilient finances and a better shot at fully retiring and maintaining their lifestyle than people who have been pushed out of employment. The survey also identified two of the greatest retirement fears of workers: outliving their savings and investments (Boomers 47%, Gen X 44%), and requiring long-term care (Boomers 41%, Gen X 40%).

The Transamerica survey revealed a striking split in how employers and workers view aging and retirement. When employers were asked the age at which people are too old to hire, given the illegality of age discrimination, more than half said it depends on the person—but among those who stated an age, 58 was the median response. Meanwhile, among Generation X workers in their late 40s and 50s, 40% expect to retire at age 70 or older, or do not plan to retire at all, while 54% plan to work in retirement. Because attitudes about retirement pertain more to people’s age than to generational attitudes, the responses of Baby Boomers and Generation X are more instructive than those of Millennials and Generation Z.

The Economic Innovation Group’s11 Retirement Security and Wealth Attitudes: National Voter Survey (2021) was conducted online by Echelon Insights with 1000 nationally representative registered voters sampled from a matched panel hosted by Dynata. When asked, “How confident are you that you will have enough savings to live comfortably when you retire?” 33% reported that they are not confident or are unsure. Voters with a 401(k) or IRA expressed more confidence about this question: only 20% said they are not confident about their savings, compared to 51% of those without a 401(k) or an IRA. 

An industry survey commissioned by Goldman Sachs Asset Management12 also produced relatively upbeat responses because it sampled employed people, surveying 967 workers over age 20 as well as 599 retirees aged 50-75. Among this cohort, 42% of workers said savings for retirement are “somewhat behind” or “very behind” schedule when asked, “Where would you say your retirement savings are at this moment?” The older the respondent, the more worried they were: 52% of Boomers and 51% of Gen Xers said they feel behind on saving; these worries were reported by 34% of Millennials and only 27% of Gen-Zers. 

That workers become less confident about their retirement futures as they grow older is further proof that facts triumph over hope. As people age, they become more aware of their financial needs in retirement, while younger people think they have time to save later rather than needing to be “on track” with a realistic plan. Feelings among retirees are different. A little less than half (45%) of retirees said they are stressed about retirement, but as with other surveys, significantly more women retirees (54%) reported stress than male retirees (36%). In assessing why they didn’t save more for retirement, 66% of retirees and 54% of workers said financial hardship stopped them. 

A survey by Voya Investment Management sampled 500 full-time workers at companies with 25 or more employees who are actively contributing to their employer-sponsored retirement plan. Voya’s Survey of the Retirement Landscape: Participant Sentiments (November 202313) found only 38% of workers are feeling either “not well prepared” or “not at all prepared” when asked about their retirement preparedness. (Compare this to the 56% in the NIRS survey and 77% in Gallup who said they have little or no confidence that they will have enough in retirement.) Still, there is considerable worry even among these full-time workers with retirement plan assets: 41% think they will never be able to save enough for retirement; 70% worry they can’t put aside money for an emergency or unexpected expense; and 75% worry about inflation’s impact on their retirement future. 

The Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) has conducted its Retirement Confidence Survey14since 1998, making it the longest-running survey on retirement confidence in the U.S. Their sample is large—1,255 workers over age 25 and 1,266 retirees. EBRI finds higher levels of confidence compared to all the other surveys: only 32% of workers and 26% of retirees said they are not confident they will have enough to live comfortably. Interestingly, 75% of workers surveyed said they expect to work for pay in retirement, while only 30% of retirees report that they actually do. Additionally, 73% of workers expect work for pay to be a source of income in retirement, while only 25% of retirees report that it actually is a source of income. 

 

Confidence Bias: The Tricky Psychology of Retirement Surveys 

Beyond all the variations in these surveys, there is plenty of worry about retirement—and for good reason. If anything, the surveys may suggest more confidence and comfort than Americans really feel. There are four main psychological reasons why people may be more confident about their retirement planning than they should be. Retirement confidence questions are about the future, people’s capabilities, and each person’s sense of time, and the future is context-dependent and differs by personality.15Assessing the meaning of responses to a question about confidence in one’s future is tricky business. How these questions are asked influences responses. If asked whether their retirement savings are on “track” to meet their goals, what “on track” means to a person may be unclear, and respondents’ tendency to please the interviewer may bias the answer to “yes.”

There are other biases and variables to look out for. Small samples of specific groups, such as tech workers in large firms who have 401(k)s, make conclusions about the group less meaningful. Surveys that must be emailed only draw responses from people who are comfortable with technology—and these people will likely save differently for retirement than others. If it’s a survey on paper requiring the respondent to fill out and mail it, the answers may be more accurate, but the care, attention, and time required biases the sample toward people who are not typical. The more reliable surveys use expensive techniques requiring paying the respondent and sending a trained surveyor to the person’s home. Most surveys are done by telephone or social media which may select away from people who are not comfortable with that communication, such as older or lower-income people. 

Another bias can tilt responses: people underestimate how long they will live16 and how much money they need to retire.17 Americans are likely to express more confidence about their retirement prospects than one might expect based on the grim facts in SCEPA’s many publications on the retirement crisis.18 It's easier to tell a researcher you'll be all right than to admit you won't be. 

People may express overconfidence in retirement surveys for another reason—many of us are bad at math. The National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS) detected an unfounded level of cheeriness when they asked a clever survey question about how far $100,000 will last in retirement—specifically, how much $100,000 would yield per year for the rest of their lives when they turn 65. Only 8% of those polled could accurately guess that $100,000 would yield a life-time benefit of around $4000 per year. Most respondents (74%) were too optimistic, guessing a lifetime benefit of $5000 or more per year; and 21% thought it would yield more than $25,000 a year. That would make for a sadly short lifespan.

 

What Do Americans Want Congress and the President to Do? 

The future of Social Security weighs heavily on workers’ minds—the system’s fragility is a chief financial worry among older workers.19 When Americans are asked what should be done to finance a valuable government program, most point to the rich (defined as having more money than they do). But a surprisingly large portion of Americans (36%) said they “don't mind paying Social Security taxes” for the security the system provides.20 In a 2023 Gallup poll, 61% of Americans said they support the government raising Social Security taxes, while 31% prefer the government curb Social Security benefits. One cautionary note: since 2005, the margin in favor of increasing taxes has been shrinking.21

Only two surveys, those by EIG and NIRS, asked respondents what policymakers should do about the retirement crisis. With some prompting (describing a proposal for a comprehensive pension system), most Americans say they support a very active government role. They support saving on their own but also getting a government-matched retirement contribution. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed want government-matched retirement contributions after learning more about the programs in focus groups. In a rare probe about how people feel about government action based on their political party, EIG found that 82% of Democrats and 74% of Republicans believe that all working Americans should have access to the same savings plan as government employees, the Thrift Savings Plan. 

Fortunately, there is a bi-partisan bill in Congress—the Retirement Savings for Americans Act (RSAA)—that would provide every qualified worker with a retirement plan account if their employer doesn’t provide one. The account will be a retirement savings vehicle modeled after the successful federal Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). If RSAA passes, the federal government would provide a matching contribution of up to 5 percent for low- and moderate-income workers. One of the unsung benefits of the federal match is that it incentivizes people to report all their earnings and stay in the formal economy.

 

Conclusion 

Americans are increasingly worried about their retirement prospects, and the data justifies their concerns. Various surveys reveal a wide range of anxiety levels, largely influenced by the questions asked and the demographics surveyed. Our analysis indicates a pervasive unease about financial security in retirement.

Eight different surveys, including those conducted by government bodies, research groups, and industry advocates, show that retirement anxiety ranges from a high of 71% to a low of 32%. This variability highlights how the framing of questions and the respondents' profiles—such as age, working status, and whether they are already retired—affect the results. For instance, the AARP reports that two-thirds of Americans are concerned about their retirement futures, while the EBRI and industry surveys find less than 50% express worry.

Despite these differences, the underlying theme is clear: Americans want action. Almost all the surveys indicate a demand for more robust retirement policies, such as expanded coverage in retirement accounts. This demand is backed by stark financial realities. Projections show that most American workers are on a path that will not provide sufficient retirement funds. Only a small percentage of those aged 62 to 70 are retired and living above the de-facto poverty line, with median retirement account balances alarmingly low.

The discrepancy between perceived and actual retirement readiness can be attributed to psychological factors. People often underestimate their longevity and the amount of retirement savings they will need, leading to overconfidence in their financial futures. This is compounded by a lack of financial literacy, as evidenced by widespread misconceptions about the longevity of retirement savings.

While surveys may vary, the consistent finding is that Americans are worried about their retirement futures, and rightfully so. The data supports the need for comprehensive policy interventions (such as the Retirement Savings for Americans Act) to address the impending retirement crisis and ensure financial security for all future retirees.

 

Appendix 

International Comparisons 

Europeans also experience anxiety, despite having much lower elder poverty rates. American retirees are much more downbeat about the adequacy of their retirement finances than Europeans. The Dutch system in particular stands out, rating highly for its effective and efficient retirement system, and their workers have less anxiety than others. 

In October 2018, the consulting firm Ipsos, on behalf of ING,22 conducted an online survey of 2,747 retirees and 11,948 workers across 15 countries, mostly in Western Europe23 and including Poland, Romania, Australia, and the United States. This international survey reveals more pessimism than was found in the eight American-based retirement confidence surveys described above.

In answering the stark statement, “I worry about whether I will have enough money in retirement,” the Americans stand out, with 62% having anxiety about retirement finances—a bit worse than the average European and much worse than the 40% of Dutch respondents. The Netherland has one of the most highly rated pension systems in the world.24

Anxiety over retirement finances is high in a number of European nations, with 69% reporting these worries in Spain; 67% in France, where the government has drastically cut benefits by raising the retirement age for their national pension; 65% among Italians; and 58% in Germany and the UK. 

Some of the response differences are surprising and intriguing. Americans were actually less likely than Europeans to disagree with the statement, “My income and financial position will let me enjoy the same living standard in retirement as I enjoy today.” When asked if they could maintain their living standards in retirement, 38% of Europeans disagreed, while only 24% of Americans expressed this doubt. Even the Dutch were more pessimistic than the Americans, with 26% disagreeing with the idea that they will have the same living standards in retirement. At this stage of research, we can only surmise that these somewhat counter-intuitive responses may relate to people’s varying expectations in different countries.

When retirees were asked if they disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, “I enjoy the same standards of living I had when working,” Americans were again surprisingly less likely to disagree, at 30%, than the average European, at 50%. French retirees were an outlier—69% disagreed that they had the same living standards in retirement that they had while working; 54% of German retirees also disagreed with the standards of living statement; significant if lower levels of Spanish retirees (47%) and Italian and Dutch retirees (36%) disagreed that their living standards were the same. 

These inconsistencies between pension system rankings and retirement anxieties may be explained by differences in expectations about post-retirement life and the entitlements that retirees are due. For instance, the Dutch may be more pessimistic because a small drop from a high standard of living may be felt more keenly than a larger drop from a lower standard of living. There is clearly much more to study to develop a richer understanding about what these differences mean.


 Endnotes

Ghilarducci, T. (2024). Work, Retire, Repeat: The Uncertainty of Retirement in the New Economy. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

2 The majority of older Americans are either retired but living below the standard of living theyenjoyed while working, or still working because they can't afford to retire. Because of the spotty voluntary system of work-based retirement in the U.S., about 3 in 10 Americans aged 59 or older do are forced to retire younger than they had planned. At minimum, more than ten percent of Americans aged 65 and up are in poverty, according to official U.S. measures. Internationally-recognized relative poverty data show a worse picture, estimating that 23 percent of U.S. elders are in poverty–meaning they live on just 50 percent of U.S. median income, about $23,200 a year. That’s about half of what a single adult would need for a modest yet adequate standard of living in, say, Kansas City, Missouri. On $23,000 you have about $500 a month for housing and $150 for food per month.

3 Morrissey, M., Radpour, S., and Schuster, B. (2022, November 16). The Older Workers and Retirement Chartbook Chapter 2: Retirement. Economic Policy Institute. https://www.epi.org/publication/chapter-2-retirement/

4 Max, S. (2019, November 16). Nobel Prize-Winning Economist on How to Solve the ‘Nastiest, Hardest Problem’ in Retirement. Barron’s. https://www.barrons.com/amp/articles/william-sharpe-how-to-secure-lasting-retirement-income-51573837934

5 Brenan, M. (2023, May 25). Americans’ Outlook for Their Retirement Has Worsened. Gallup. https://news.gallup.com/poll/506330/americans-outlook-retirement-worsened.aspx

Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve Board. (2024). Economic Well-being of US Households in 2023. https://doi.org/10.17016/8960

Brown, S. Kathi (2024). AARP Financial Security Trends Survey, January 2024. Washington, DC: AARP Research. https://doi.org/10.26419/res.00525.040

Doonan, D. & Kenneally, K. (2024). Retirement Insecurity 2024 – Americans’ Views of Retirement. https://www.nirsonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2024/02/FINAL-2024-Public-Opinion-Research.pdf

Collinson, C. & Cho, H. (2024). The Multigenerational Workforce: Life, Work, & Retirement. Transamerica Institute. https://www.transamericainstitute.org/docs/research/generations-age/multigenerational-workforce-life-work-retirement-survey-report-2024.pdf

10 Collinson, C. & Cho, H. (2024). Workplace Transformations: Employer Business Practices and Benefit Offerings. Transamerica Institute. https://www.transamericainstitute.org/research/publications/details/workplace-transformations-employer-business-practices-and-benefit-offerings

11 Economic Innovation Group. (2022). Retirement Security and Wealth Attitudes: National Voter Survey. https://inclusivewealth.eig.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/EIG-National-Voter-Survey.pdf

12 Goldman Sachs Asset Management. (2022). Retirement Survey & Insight Reports 2022 – Navigating the Financial Vortex. https://www.gsam.com/content/gsam/us/en/institutions/market-insights/gsam-insights/2022/retirement-survey-insights-2022.html#section-none

13 VoYA Investment Management. (2023, November 13). Survey of the Retirement Landscape: Participant Sentiments. VoYA. https://individuals.voya.com/insights/education/survey-retirement-landscape-participant-sentiments

14 Employment Benefit Research Institute. (2024). Retirement Confidence Survey 2024. https://www.ebri.org/docs/default-source/rcs/2024-rcs/2024-rcs-release-report.pdf?sfvrsn=2447072f_1

15 Bruslerie, H. D. L. (2015). Decreasing term structure of psychological discount rates: Experimental estimation and determinants. Journal of Behavioural and Experimental Finance, 6(1), 13-26. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbef.2015.02.006

16 Yakoboski, P., Lusardi, A., Hasler, A. (2023). Financial literacy, longevity literacy and retirement readiness – the 2022 TIAA Institute-GFLEC Personal Finance Index. TIAA Institute. https://www.tiaa.org/content/dam/tiaa/institute/pdf/insights-report/2023-
01/longevity_literacy_financial_literacy_and_retirement_readiness.pdf

17 Chen, Anqi, Yimeng Yin, and Alicia H. Munnell. (2023). "How Well Do People Perceive Their Retirement Preparedness?" Issue in Brief 23-12. Chestnut Hill, MA: Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

18 Cook, C. D. & Ghilarducci, T. (2024, May 15). 10 reasons we must urgently get over our retirement crisis denial. The Hill. https://thehill.com/opinion/finance/4660814-10-reasons-we-must-urgently-get-over-our-retirement-crisis-denial/

19 Collinson, C. & Cho, H. (2023). Post-Pandemic Realities: The Retirement Outlook of the Multigenerational Workforce. Transamerica Institute. https://www.transamericainstitute.org/docs/default-source/research/post-pandemic-retirement-realities-multigenerational-workforce-report-july-2023.pdf?sfvrsn=ab9dd8c_8

20 Walker, E. A. (2015). Americans make hard choices on social security: A survey with trade-off analysis. Pension Benefits24(1), 8-10.

21 Jones, Jeffrey M. Americans More Upbeat About Future Social Security Benefits. Gallup  Accessed: June 10 2023. https://news.gallup.com/poll/546890/americans-upbeat-future-social-security-benefits.aspx#:~:text=Majorities%20of%20Democrats%20(69%25),independents%20and%2027%25%20of%20Democrats.

22 ING (2019). Saving woes stretch retirement outlook. https://think.ing.com/uploads/reports/ING_International_Survey_Savings_Retirement_Saving_Challenges_2019_FINAL.pdf

23 Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom, USA, Australia

24 Melbourne Mercer. Global Pension Index 2019. Melbourne: Mercer Institute and Monash University. https://www.mercer.com/insights/investments/market-outlook-and-trends/mercer-cfa-global-pension-index/