Just how ill-prepared are Americans for retirement?

Less than one-third of Americans are saving money in their 401(k)s and other workplace retirement accounts, according to an analysis of tax records by Census Bureau researchers.

Although nearly 80 percent of Americans work for an employer that offers retirement programs - whether a 401(k), 403(b) or something else - only 32 percent of workers sign up for such accounts, according to a working draft of the study by Michael Gideon and Joshua Mitchell. The researchers studied W-2 tax forms from 2012 from 155 million American workers for their findings, which help shed light on just how ill-prepared many Americans are for the future.

"Not saving enough is a long-held American tradition, right up there with baseball and apple pie," said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for, a personal finance website. "There's no disputing that people are undersaving for retirement in a serious way."

Financial planners say the lack of long-term savings has become particularly troublesome after the financial crisis. Wages have stalled in recent years, and today's younger workers are more likely than previous generations to frequently switch jobs or work for smaller firms that may not offer retirement plans, according to financial planners across the country. Many employers are also doing away with traditional pensions.

Older workers, meanwhile, are increasingly experiencing sticker shock when they realize just how much money they'll need for retirement, said Manisha Thakor, a financial adviser in Portland, Ore. The most conservative calculations estimate Americans will need to have about eight to 10 times their annual salary saved for retirement, she said.

"By the time people see how much they need, it seems so horrific and out of bounds that they just freeze and do nothing," she said, adding that she counsels clients to save at least 20 percent of their income toward retirement and other expenses. "They just throw their hands up and say, 'What's the point of even trying at this point? I'm so far off.'"

At the same time, people are living longer, which means they'll have to save up that much more to help support themselves in their post-work years. Plus, she added, "layered on top of both generations is the specter of student loan debt, which has now eclipsed credit card debt.

"Indeed, the number of older Americans taking on student debt on behalf of their children and grandchildren has quadrupled in the past decade, with consumers over 60 now holding $66.7 billion in student loan debt, according to a recent report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The skyrocketing cost of college has placed a particular burden on older Americans, many of whom are struggling to pay back growing debts in their retirement years, according to the report. Nearly 40 percent of federal student loan borrowers over age 65 are in default, the highest rate for any age group, the data show.

That problem is likely to grow even worse as the next generation of workers hits retirement age, experts said. Many Americans are playing it safe when it comes to investing their savings, which may mean fewer returns in coming years.

"Younger Americans, in particular, are not investing nearly aggressively enough - and that is a huge consequence of the Great Recession," said McBride of Bankrate. "A lot of individuals got scared out of the stock market at that point because it was the second market meltdown they'd seen in an eight-year span."

But there could be one bright spot: Employers - whether public or private - are increasingly turning to automatic enrollment when it comes to retirement plans, said George Papadopoulos, a financial planner in Novi, Mich.

Studies have shown that people are more likely to save for retirement when they have to opt out of a savings program than when they have to take the initiative to sign themselves up, he said. In recent weeks, though, Congress has moved to repeal Obama administration measures that allow states to automatically enroll workers in retirement programs.

"I'm all for giving people the choice to do what is best for them," he said, "but sometimes you just need to force them to save."

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