Retirement savers globally falling short

Feeling hopeful about your retirement readiness? If so, you've got company. A study being released Wednesday found that employees in 13 out of the 15 countries surveyed are feeling at least as optimistic as they were a year ago about how prepared they are for retirement.

Whether they really are more prepared, though, is another matter.

"Our concern is that the increase is more attributable to increased optimism given the markets' recovery, versus actual changes in behavior," said Catherine Collinson, executive director of the Aegon Center for Longevity and Retirement, which conducted the study in collaboration with the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.

The overall retirement readiness score for the survey respondents—which included 14,400 employees in 15 countrieswas a 5.9 out of a possible 10, which by Aegon's scale means they need to do much more to be sure they have a comfortable retirement. (The scores are based on answers to questions that examine respondents' understanding of retirement planning, sense of personal responsibility and the extent to which they are currently saving for retirement, among other factors.)

A score between 6 and 8 means an employee is taking some steps toward saving for retirement, but needs to do more. Only 18 percent of global employees surveyed achieved scores above 8, indicating they are well-prepared for retirement by Aegon's standards.

The survey found that more than 6 in 10 employees globally are not saving habitually for retirement, and as many as 4 in 10 employees are currently not saving for retirement at all. (Tweet This)

That lack of saving comes at a time when more and more people have to rely on their own savings. Many countries are following a path similar to that of the United States, moving away from defined benefit plans and toward an emphasis on personal savings.

Aegon found that "savings are now a more widespread tool for retirement planning than either defined benefit pensions, used by 26 percent globally, and private pensions, used by 24 percent."

Employees in India reported the highest level of retirement readiness, with a score of 7 out of a possible 10. The United States scored 6.5, behind India and Brazil and on par with China.

The relatively positive results from India, Brazil and China may be due to the fact that the survey was conducted online, so in emerging economies, Aegon was likely to reach the people most actively participating in their country's economic growth, said Collinson. These countries have also traditionally relied less on a government-funded or pension system than other Western countries, researchers noted, so employees are more likely to feel a greater level of responsibility for their own retirement planning.

The three top-scoring countries also have high interest rates, which can boost the value of residents' savings.

The lowest rates of retirement readiness were reported in Japan, which scored a 4.8 out of 10. Collinson pointed to the country's aging population and slow-growth economy as reasons for the low score. Researchers also noted that employers there have traditionally played a major role in providing pensions, which may explain why 49 percent of employees report not having a retirement strategy.

Residents in Western European countries, where government retirement benefits are still expected to make up a large part of retirement incomes, also scored lower.

While government retirement benefits may continue to make up a significant part of retirement incomes, researchers note that the balance of funding is likely to shift toward individuals over time as the entitlements under European-style welfare systems are reduced and employer pensions become less generous. As they do, individuals will have to pick up more of the responsibility for preparing for retirement.

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One way to ease the transition may be to encourage employers to automatically enroll employees in retirement plans. Not surprisingly, those that do have extremely high participation rates.

A study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that in countries with this system, at least 70 percent of employees were covered. And a study by Towers Watson found that when British employers adopted automatic enrollment, roughly 90 percent of workers participated in the plans.

Inviting employees to voluntarily participate in retirement plans is significantly less effective, the OECD found.

Features like automatic enrollment and automatic increases in contributions will go a long way toward making retirement confidence a reality rather than just wishful thinking, agreed Collinson. "The single most important thing," she said, "is making it convenient for people to save."