TIME Retirement

3 Generations, 3 Paths to the Retirement Poorhouse

Every working generation has a unique plan for retirement. Will any of them get there?

Banks and mutual fund companies pump out surveys and data points every day to illustrate the retirement income crisis in America. They want to make sure you don’t forget to save and invest—with them. But they have little to fear. It’s not like this crisis is going away anytime soon.

Every working generation is getting some part of the retirement security equation wrong. Boomers plan to work longer—but they aren’t keeping current on skills. Gen X is socking away cash in 401(k) and similar plans—but they are borrowing too much from those very accounts. Millennials have become dedicated savers and asset gatherers—but they spend too much and aren’t doing enough about their crushing student debts.

These are broad conclusions drawn from recent surveys. The most pointed conclusions come from the newly released 15th Annual Transamerica Retirement survey, which found that the effects of the Great Recession continue to weigh on all generations and are leading them down distinct savings paths.

Boomers Born between 1946 and 1964, the youngest are now turning 50. Boomers are first-generation Guinea pigs as it relates to the new retirement model. Many were mid-career when traditional pensions gave way to 401(k) plans. They haven’t had 40 or 50 years to stuff the new plans with cash and let compound growth do the heavy lifting. The lucky ones still qualify for traditional pensions. But this is a famously under-saved demographic with a median nest egg of just $127,000.

More than a third of boomers say Social Security will be their primary source of retirement income, up from a quarter before the recession, Transamerica found. Just one in five plan to not work at all in retirement. Yet staying at work isn’t always possible. Less than half are keeping job skills up to date and only one in seven are scoping out job opportunities or networking for employment. Meanwhile, just 21% of employers have programs to help older workers scale back at work. Health issues also prevent older people from staying at work as long as they may like.

Gen X Born between 1965 and 1978, this was the first generation to enjoy access to 401(k) savings and growth for nearly all their working years. Nearly all of them—91%—highly value these plans and 84% of those who are eligible participate in their company plan. Unfortunately, this group treats the 401(k) like a piggy bank: 27% have taken a loan or early withdrawal from the plan. In doing so they often incurred taxes and penalties, which on top of lost growth set their savings goals back further.

Gen Xers estimate they will need $1 million to retire, Transamerica found. Their median savings to date: $70,000. The oldest are just turning 50. So they have time if they begin to power save 20% or so of income. But nothing will help if they keep robbing the kitty. “Simply put, 401(k) loans are a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” say Catherine Collinson, president of Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. “Everyone should know that it’s best to say no to 401(k) loans.”

Millennials Born after 1978, this huge generation about 80 million strong is a budding group of super savers that have heard the message about saving early and often. Seven in 10 are saving for retirement and began at the median age of 22. Millennials participating in a company-sponsored plan that features a match are socking away an impressive 10% of their salary.

Yet while the asset side of their ledger is encouraging, the liabilities side is frightening. More than half of college-educated Millennials owe student loans; 41% have a mortgage (many for greater than their home’s value) and another 41% have auto debt, according to a report from TIAA-CREF Institute. They are also neck-deep in credit card debt. So they’re saving, but their net worth isn’t necessarily rising. To an extent, this generation knows what it doesn’t know; 73% crave more financial information from their employer. Let’s hope they get it, because this a generation without financial safety nets—but ready to do what it takes to build retirement security over the long haul.

 

 

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