Financial advisors have known for some time that Americans have lost confidence in their ability to afford a comfortable retirement, but for confidence to plunge just as economic indicators were perking up?

That is something new, and suggests that Americans are starting to realize just how serious the broad retirement planning picture is, according to the 2011 Retirement Confidence Survey from the from the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), released on Monday.

The amount of American workers who said they were not at all confident about having enough money for a comfortable retirement was 27%, up from 22%, the highest level measured in the 21 years that the EBRI has done the survey. Also, only 13% of investors surveyed said they were very confident they would have accumulated enough to live well in retirement.

EBRI gleaned those findings through telephone interviews conducted with 1,258 individuals, in January 2011. Among them, 1,004 were workers and 254 were retirees.

EBRI did the study when the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that unemployment had slipped to 9.4% in December. Although that is not a low number, it was still at the lowest level not seen since May 2009. At press time, the BLS put March’s unemployment rate at 8.8%. Also in January, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had gone up about 14% year over year.

“The baby boomer generation is approaching retirement, and people are beginning to realize that they do not have enough money saved,” Steve Blakely, EBRI’s director of communications and managing editor, said in a telephone interview on Monday. “They are changing their expectations in terms of having to work longer, and having to work for pay in retirement.”

Indeed, financial advisors have quite a task ahead in preparing American workers for retirement. Consider this finding: just 42% of respondents said they, their spouse, or both, have tried to calculate how much they will need to accumulate to afford a comfortable retirement.

There is an encouraging nuance, Blakely said. Among those who have tried to assess what they need, just doing the calculation causes them to raise their savings goals and take some sort of action.

“One of the single most effective things people can do is to do the savings needs calculation,” Blakely said.

Among the respondents still working, 91%, value financial advisors for input on how much they should save, so that they can maintain their current lifestyle after they retire. Another 91% valued assumptions on how much retirement income they could expect from the money they currently have in their account.

Twenty-three percent of workers and retirees polled said they obtained investment advice from a professional financial advisors who was paid through fees or commissions.

EBRI’s findings also suggest that there are specific tasks that investors tried to do on their own. Workers and retirees made more of an effort to introduce managed funds and annuities within their own defined contribution plans. Also, 34% of retirees and 20% of workers say they prefer to look into investments on their own and make their own decisions.

Smaller percentages (18% of workers and 14% of retirees) would prefer suggestions from a professional and use the recommendations most of the time.