NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Retirement savings statistics are usually pretty depressing. For instance, a recent study from the National Institute on Retirement Security found that the median retirement account balance across all age groups is $3,000, and for those nearest to retirement, the median is only slightly higher, at $12,000.

Those numbers may be dismal, but they don't tell the whole story. Companies have quietly been shifting their benefits packages for years now, making those paltry savings account balances even more troubling when it comes to younger workers. Today's retirement accounts are not the same as they used to be. Not even close.

Defined Benefit or Pension Plans

Here's the difference. In the past, companies provided something called a defined benefit or pension plan for their employee's retirement. Meaning, the company guaranteed a certain amount of continued monthly income once the employee reached retirement age and stopped working. In that case, the company takes responsibility for saving and investing to ensure those payments can be met when the time comes. The employee generally contributes nothing other than hard work and years of service.

Defined Contribution or 401(k) Plans

Over time, that benefit has been replaced with defined contribution plans, like the commonly known 401(k) plan. These are basically the exact opposite of defined benefit plans. Now, the burden of saving and investing is placed on the employee, who must set aside a portion of their own income today to make sure they have income during retirement. In some cases the company will provide a small match, but that pales in comparison to the defined benefit plans of the past. For younger workers, their golden years will only be as good as their ability to accumulate savings. Something we've continually demonstrated that we are not very good at.

Changing Retirement Landscape

In just one generation, our retirement landscape has drastically changed. While 60% of workers over the age of 55 are covered under a defined benefit plan, only 30% of workers under 34 are. And that percentage will continue to decline.

The Silver Lining

There is a silver lining to be found, however. Younger workers may not have the safety net of a pension plan, but they do have more control over their career and savings than ever before. And that's a benefit we all need to recognize and help them maximize before it's too late.

--Written by Lauren Lyons Cole for MainStreet