I read an article this morning entitled "Encouraging Savings Without a Match." The article was informative enough and it did discuss the importance of getting workers to save. It discussed how auto features (auto-enrollment and auto-escalation) will have positive effects in allowing workers to accumulate balances large enough to retire someday.
The author and her sources are correct. Auto features will help, but they are not enough.
Suppose I am a participant in a 401(k) plan and you are my employer. Suppose that in that plan, you provide me with a fairly measly (by today's standards) match of 25 cents on the dollar for the first 4% of pay that I contribute. That's not much; you're only contributing as much as 1% of my pay, but you are motivating (note the lack of use of the non-word incentivize) me to defer at least 4% of my pay. That means that 5% of my pay will go into my account. It's also a first-year return on my investment of 25% before I have even a bit of positive investment performance.
If instead, you provide me with a more generous match of 50 cents on the dollar for my first 6% of pay, the motivation for me to defer at least that 6% is even greater. And, of course, if you provide me with one of the nice safe harbor matches that are even more generous, I am motivated still further.
Auto-enrollment provides no such motivation. Without that motivation, when I hit a financial crunch (perhaps my new-fangled high-deductible health plan is not providing me with the risk management tools that I really need), the first place I may look to for an extra source of weekly or monthly cash is those 401(k) deferrals. Perhaps stopping them allows me to pay my rent or mortgage on time. Perhaps it allows me to make my car payments. Because I don't have an additional incentive beyond the holy grail of retirement to continue saving, ceasing my 401(k) deferrals sure feels like a good idea. And, once I stop, I probably won't start again.
From where I sit, most people today seem to live at or above their means where their means are characterized by their take-home pay. The old defined benefit-based system allowed people to retire because their take-home pay was perhaps a little bit less in order to pay for their retirement benefit which could be a fair amount more. The discipline in that was not employee-driven, but plan design and ERISA-driven.
Now, the motivation is largely gone and the discipline is largely gone. People are living longer and a lot of them are going to have to work for a long, long time.