It's not your father's — or your grandfather's — retirement: the one where you quit your job, live on your pension and spend time sitting on the beach. Today, working in "retirement" appears to be the plan — of necessity or of choice — for a majority of middle-class Americans.

This is now the case, according to Wells Fargo's sixth annual Retirement survey, which was conducted by telephone in September and October 2010 and examined the attitudes and behaviors of middle class Americans between the ages of 25 and 69.

We found that, by and large, Americans — especially those under 50 — understand that retirement is very much a do-it-yourself endeavor today. More than half of individuals surveyed doubt they'll be able to count on Social Security.

So, what's their backup plan? For many, the answer seems to be to delay or avoid retiring. Seventy-two percent of middle-class Americans between the ages of 25 and 69 expect to work through their retirement years.

This trend is driven both by deep deficits in personal retirement savings and by life-style choices. Thirty-nine percent say they will "need to" work to make ends meet or maintain their lifestyles in retirement, while 33% say they will keep working because they want to.

One potential pitfall with this approach is that — whether you need to or want to — there's no guarantee that you'll actually be able to work through retirement, or that you will find a job. Health problems, family responsibilities and other factors could also derail the idea of continuing to work. In these situations, it is crucial to have a plan that can be adjusted as your circumstances change. But most people have no written plan for their retirement. Only a third of survey participants said they had a plan. This number is consistent with the findings of our 2009 survey.

The 2010 report indicates that three groups of people rise to the top as those most at risk: 20-somethings, 40-somethings and women. We have the most opportunity to help these groups.

Roaring Twenties

Seventy-one percent of people in their twenties are confident that they are on track for retirement. However, they have the lowest level of confidence among all of the age groups about the stock market as a place for investment gains; just 31% see it as a place to invest their money, compared to 40% of those in their forties.

While this is probably not an age group that attracts much focus from advisors at present, 20-somethings could be clients eventually, so it's important to understand the psychology that drives their behavior.

Their trepidation is not surprising, since their first experience with the stock market has come during the worst economic crisis we've seen in decades. It means, though, that they face a double hit to their future economic prospects: entering the weakest job market in years and putting their money in investments with the lowest historical long-term growth potential.

The Big 4-OH

People in their forties are not so confident about their future. In fact, according to the survey, this age group is the most stressed about retirement. They are the least likely of any group — 48% — to express confidence in their ability to save enough to live the retirement they want, while 60% of them say they don't have extra money to save for retirement. They are much less likely to have pensions than older workers, and 61% of them say that money matters have increased the tension in their households since the economic downturn. They are on the threshold of retirement, and when they peer through the doorway, they don't like what they see.

As a result, 80% of them expect to work for many years to come.

Grabbing the Reins

Finally, women are less certain and more worried about retirement than men. Just 53% were confident that they have saved enough to have the lifestyle they want in retirement, compared to 62% of the men we surveyed. This is a valid concern since women tend to live longer than men, meaning their assets need to last longer as well.

Women are much less likely than men to say their 401(k) will contribute to their retirement income: 43% versus 56%. Women are also much less confident in the stock market as a place to achieve investment gains than men are: 27% versus 40%. Another stunning, but probably realistic statistic is that women are much less likely to see themselves as the primary financial decision maker — 35% compared to 55% of surveyed men. What women should recognize is that they are likely to outlive their spouse and will therefore become the primary decision maker on financial matters in their household. Women should be seeing themselves in this role before it is thrust upon them.

Opportunities Abound

While their circumstances differ, all three groups present opportunities for financial advisors. More than 80% of survey participants say they would like advice about retirement planning. They were most interested in help to figure out how much to save, how to invest their savings and how to develop a plan.

Of course, people in their twenties have a longer time horizon to invest, but they may be overconfident about their prospects, and underinvested to produce the returns they will need. We have a chance to work with them to offer them advice and a plan to help them maximize their potential. We can help 40-somethings navigate the "new normal" of a self-funded retirement, and we can provide women with education and strategies to increase their confidence about-and readiness for-retirement.

So, it may not look much like their father's or grandfather's retirement of yesterday, but, with help and a solid plan, our clients can have a retirement that works for them today.

Karen Wimbish is director of Retail Retirement, part of Wells Fargo Retirement.
She leads a department of more than 200 team members who help retail
customers through multiple channels.