The study used 2008 data culled from 908 plans, representing 7.4 million participants and more than $600 billion in plan assets.

That trend was seen in a survey by global consulting firm Watson Wyatt. That survey, which used data from this year, found that almost 47% of companies now automatically enroll employees. A third of those that don't are considering it. Watson Wyatt's survey polled 149 large companies, representing more than 2 million employees.

Automatic enrollment "will be standard practice, but won't be universal," PSCA President David Wray says, noting that smaller companies tend to have higher participation rates because employees aren't spread across different regions or units.

Despite such high-profile companies as Starbucks ( SBUX), FedEx ( FDX) and J. Crew ( JCG) suspending their employee matches in recent months, only 1% of respondents indicated they did so.

According to Watson Wyatt, 82.7% of eligible employees have balances in their 401(k) plans, up from 81.9% in 2007. Almost 40% of plans permit Roth 401(k) contributions, up from 30.3% in 2007. The availability and use of target-date funds also continued to grow, with 57.7% of plans now offering them. A total of 91.6% of companies that offer target-date funds use a packaged product.

-- Reported by Joe Mont in Boston.

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