Americans are widely confident of their own ability to prepare for retirement but aren’t so sure about how well other Americans will do, finds a new survey by National Underwriter/New York Life. And when pressed, many admit failings that suggest they could use help in preparing for their golden years.

The study finds 72% of Americans give themselves high grades (“A” or “B”) for retirement preparations.

Yet when asked whether their fellow Americans would do well in retirement, 95% thought others would not be able to afford the lifestyle they wanted. That included 29% who thought most Americans will face a financially grim retirement.

The survey also finds 70% of pre-retirees expect to live at least 20 years, while 47% expect to live at least 25 years beyond retirement.

Yet considering how long they expect their nest egg to last, many set modest retirement savings goals or didn’t even know how much they’d need to accumulate to fund a comfortable retirement.

Among pre-retirees, 63% thought they would need $250,000 or more to have a reasonably contented life after they leave the work force, while 56% thought they’d need at least $500,000, according to the study. Another 7% thought they’d need to accumulate less than $250,000.

On the other hand, 28% didn’t know how much they needed to save.

A comparison of the responses of retirees vs. pre-retirees showed while many had traditional retirement plans, which pay a defined benefit, the number was dwindling dramatically.

Among retirees whose household had at least one retirement plan, 80% had a traditional pension plan. But among those who still are working, just 60% said either they or their spouse had a defined benefit plan.

Among those with no traditional pension, 56% who already had retired said they wish they had one. Among pre-retirees, 48% acknowledged that they wished either they or their spouse had taken a job that offered a good pension plan.

One of the more telling questions in the survey asked pre-retirees how much of their nest egg they could safely withdraw each year without risking ultimately running out of money. Only 10% said they could withdraw less than 5% safely each year, a figure with which most professional financial advisors would concur.

Another 19% thought they could safely pull out 5% to 9% annually, while 17% specified 10% to 14%. Twelve percent thought they could withdraw anywhere from 15% to 25% or even more annually.

The remaining 40% said they didn’t know.

The survey also finds a number of differences, at times dramatic, between men and women.

For instance, 45% of men said they would prefer a retirement plan in which they were completely responsible for all investment decisions vs. only 25% of women who felt the same.

Women were found to be far less likely to know how much they could safely withdraw from their nest egg, with 51% saying they did not know vs. only 29% of men.

And consistent with their longer expected life spans, far more women than men were worried about the possibility of having to fund their retirement past age 85, by a margin of 57% to 43%.

Men were far more at ease with investment risk than women, with 67% saying they were more comfortable with such risk than their spouse, compared to 30% of women who thought they were the one less anxious about financial risk.

For financial planners and advisors, the inconsistencies and uncertainties uncovered by the survey suggest a great market opportunity, says Ted Mathas, executive vice president of New York Life.

The combination of an expected long life and an admitted lack of understanding among pre-retirees about investment returns on savings adds up to a big gamble that many would be unwilling to take.

“Recognizing that risk, Americans planning their retirement are seeking professional advice on how to replace and supplement the guaranteed income streams traditionally provided through Social Security and corporate pensions,” Mathas says.

The survey uncovered an intense need among many Americans for a way to provide a guaranteed lifetime income stream.

“There are significant implications for annuity selling,” Mathas says, particularly for fixed annuities.

On the other hand, the survey suggests advisors also have a significant educational task ahead of them. Mathas points to the high number who think they can take out 10% or more a year from their savings. A far more realistic ratio would be 4% to 4.5%, he says.

“As people begin to understand the safe withdrawal rate, they’ll increasingly be more interested in lifetime income with guaranteed rates,” Mathas contends.

Agents will be able to reach this largely untapped market if they talk frankly to customers about prudent withdrawal rates from retirement savings and compare those rates to the 6% return currently offered by many fixed annuities, he says.

“At 6% interest [vs. a 4% withdrawal rate on the same amount], the difference is huge,” says Mathas. At 6%, you’d have a 50% increase in disposable income. That makes a huge difference in how long your portfolio will last and the impact on your lifestyle.”

The differences between men and women uncovered in the survey also are revealing, Mathas points out. Although men are also candidates for annuities, the findings point to women as the larger marketplace.

“Retirement planning is essentially a woman’s issue,” he says. That’s because more women than men realize the potential problems longevity can create for their retirement savings.

“Women live longer, and the number over 65 will probably triple in the next 30 years,” Mathas says. “By age 85, there will be twice as many women as men.”

Men may in fact be generally no more informed about the issue than women, but like their widely recognized aversion to asking for directions, they may not be willing to admit they’re lost, he points out.

“The good news is women don’t know and are willing to admit it,” Mathas says. “So, they are more open to advice and more receptive to going to advisors.”