Markets & Finance

Retirement: Gen Y's Empty Piggy Bank


As fund managers try to woo younger workers, why are few paying attention? They're overwhelmed by big debts and high unemployment

Baby boomers fretting over their pensions should spare a thought for Constance DeCherney. Like many of her generation, the 27-year-old Web strategist at Planned Parenthood in New York has done little to prepare for retirement. While she became eligible for a 401(k) in 2005, DeCherney only began putting money into it last year. She now contributes 3 percent of her pay, though that's just half of what Planned Parenthood will match, and DeCherney doesn't know how the investments are performing. "Just the idea of [saving for retirement] feels overwhelming," she says. "My fear of doing something wrong, or not doing enough, sort of paralyzes me."

DeCherney is typical of America's so-called Generation Y, the twentysomethings who have entered the workforce in the past 10 years. Already saddled with student debts averaging almost $20,000, according to New York-based think tank Demos, Gen Y is in a tougher financial position than previous generations. The average salary for 25- to 34-year-olds, for instance, fell 19 percent over the last 30 years, after adjusting for inflation, to $35,100, Demos estimates. That's if they can get jobs: Unemployment among 19- to 24-year-olds stands at 15.3 percent vs. the overall rate of 9.5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While many of their parents have guaranteed retirement income from being in a company-funded pension for part of their careers, Gen Y is "the first do-it-yourself retirement generation," says Catherine Collinson, president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies in Los Angeles.

Investment companies are stepping up efforts to engage Gen Yers in retirement planning. Charles Schwab has revamped its website to include weekly advice for younger workers on everything from retirement planning to paying down debt. Vanguard is testing out social media, using more blogs, a Facebook page, and soon, Twitter. "It's how this younger generation learns," says Vanguard Chief Executive Officer William McNabb III. Fidelity, the nation's largest 401(k) administrator, in June launched an iPhone app for tracking retirement savings and has replaced bulky pension literature with e-mail updates. "This generation lacks confidence about making financial decisions," says Beth McHugh, Fidelity's vice-president of market insights. "You have to explain why planning for retirement is so important."

That's presuming you can get their attention. Fewer than 4,000 Facebook users have clicked the "like" button for Fidelity's page and about 9,000 have done so for Vanguard's. Meanwhile, 4.2 million people say they like Apple iTunes on Facebook. Schwab, which began sending Twitter feeds in mid-June, has 277 followers. Whole Foods Market has 1.8 million.

Some baby boomer parents enlist the help of their financial planners in giving their kids a retirement reality check. Jim Stoops, a Schwab financial consultant in Chicago, says his 250-plus clients often bring their sons and daughters to his office for advice. "Parents just can't believe how difficult retirement will be for their children," he says. "They're trying to instill financial values in their kids."

Changes in the way 401(k) plans are designed may help the retirement prospects of Gen Y. Growing numbers of companies automatically enroll employees in plans rather than requiring them to sign up to establish an account, which has helped double participation to roughly 80 percent of eligible workers since 2006, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington. (More than half of the U.S. labor force, though, works at companies that don't offer 401(k) plans.) More companies also use so-called auto-escalation programs that bump up contributions over time. And most 401(k)s now offer target-date funds that automatically adjust the investment mix to less volatile securities such as bonds as an investor ages.

Still, the best solution for Gen Yers who want a comfortable retirement is old-fashioned. "The trick is to be incredibly disciplined about saving early," says Vanguard boss McNabb. His proposal: "An addendum to the basic principles of investing that reads: 'I am not kidding.'"

The bottom line: Young workers lack the pensions their parents enjoyed, and few are setting aside enough for retirement via 401(k)s and similar plans.

Scott is a correspondent in Bloomberg Businessweek's London bureau. With Suzanne Woolley, Chris Prentice, Moira Herbst, and Matt Robinson.

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