Most Americans understand that they need to save more and invest better in preparation for retirement, but often struggle to do so because of competing financial needs.

New research released Tuesday by Capital Group may have uncovered a way to motivate more saving: visualizing desired life in retirement.

APCO Insight conducted an online survey in April of 1,202 American adults — 402 millennials, 400 Gen Xers and 400 baby boomers — of varying income levels who had investment assets and some responsibility for making investment decisions for their families.

Eighty-five percent of respondents said Americans needed to save more for their retirement, but acknowledged that rising housing and health care costs, student debt and the cost of raising a family made that difficult.

Capital Group’s survey included an experiment to better understand what might motivate people to increase the amount they are willing to save for retirement.

Pollsters asked half of the respondents to envision the lives they wanted to lead in their post-retirement years before determining what percent of each paycheck to save in a retirement plan. The other participants were asked simply to say how much they wanted to save for retirement.

Those who were asked to picture their retirement years recommended saving 31% more per paycheck in a retirement savings plan on average than the second group of respondents. For women and millennials in the first group, the result was a 40% to 50% positive swing in the average recommended 401(k) savings rate.

“When people think about their 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond, they overwhelmingly view that part of life as a time of freedom and independence compared to their 20s and 30s,” Heather Lord, head of strategy and innovation at Capital Group, said in a statement.

“This simple insight — if you can picture your retirement, you can save for it — can help Americans secure the financial future they want in their later years.”

Capital Group noted in its full report that the financial industry often stresses worries or guilt to motivate people to pay more attention to planning and saving for retirement. “Fear generally doesn’t work, however, and people tend to resent it.”

In contrast, it said, research from behavioral economists on motivating long-term savings and improving 401(k) plan design shows that the right attitude can change everything.

The report draws an obvious conclusion: “This behavioral insight could be explored by retirement industry experts and benefits professionals to design better ways to help people build their nest egg: If you can envision retirement, you can save for it.”

Changing Norms

The survey uncovered changing perceptions of what Americans expect in their retirement years. Fifty-eight percent of respondents thought their retirement years would be more positive than that of their parents and older generations, thanks to advances in health care, technological innovations and their personal financial situation.

Survey participants also predicted major changes for society, the workplace and the economy. Only one in 10 strongly believed that traditional models of employment and retirement would be the norm for most people in future decades.

Eighty percent said they expected flexible and part-time jobs to play a bigger role in supporting retirement savings, and 79% said Americans would need more opportunities to work, earn and save later in life.

Significantly, most respondents expected to self-fund their retirement.

In other findings, 73% said their 401(k) and IRA accounts would likely be among their top three sources of financial security in retirement years.

Two-thirds of boomers listed Social Security as one of their top three expected sources of retirement income, compared with only one-third of millennials and four in 10 Gen Xers who said this.

Eighteen percent of millennials said full-time or part-time work would be important for their financial security in retirement, twice the level of boomers and higher than that of Gen Xers.

Sixty percent of boomers expected to be financially secure in their 60s, and 54% said they would be doing well enough financially in their 80s.

By contrast, only 48% of millennials and Gen Xers expected to be financially secure in their 60s, and this dropped to 41% for millennials and 43% for Gen Xers looking at their 80s and beyond.