MONEY retirement planning

Why Gen X Feels Lousiest About the Recession and Retirement

THE BREAKFAST CLUB, from left: Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, 1985.
Three decades after "The Breakfast Club" hit theaters, Gen X is still struggling. Universal—Courtesy Everett Collection

Sandwiched between much larger generations and stuck with modest 401(k)s, Gen Xers get no love from financial planners, marketers or media. No wonder they're feeling low.

The Great Recession took a heavy toll on all generations. Yet the downturn and slow recovery seem to have left Generation X feeling most glum.

Defined as those aged 36 to 49, Gen X members are least likely to say they have recovered from the crisis, according to the latest Transamerica Retirement Survey. They are most likely to say they will have a harder time reaching financial security than their parents. Gen X also is far more likely to strongly believe that Social Security will not be there for them and that personal savings will be their primary source of income in retirement.

“Generation X is clearly behind the eight ball,” says Catherine Collinson, president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. “They need a vote of confidence. But they still have time to fix their problems.”

Arguably, Gen X was feeling most beat up even before the recession. This group is in the toughest phase of life: kids at home, a mortgage, not yet in peak earning years. Mid-life crises typically hit at this age. Studies show that the busy child-rearing years tend to be the unhappiest of our life. The happiest years are 23 and 69 with a big dip in between.

And let’s not forget that Gen X is only two-thirds the size of Millennial (ages 18 to 35) and Baby Boomer (ages 50 to 68) populations. Marketing companies and the media have largely ignored this generation, which early on acquired the downbeat label: slackers. Collinson believes the financial industry is equally focused on older and younger generations, leaving Gen X all alone.

“They have to stake out a plan and pursue it on their own,” she says. “The harsh reality is people have to take on increasing responsibility for their own financial security.”

Maybe that’s why Gen X believes it must build a bigger nest egg. Asked for their retirement number, the median Gen X respondent said they need $1 million. Nearly a third said $2 million or more. The median figure for both Millennials and boomers was $800,000 with only 29% and 23%, respectively, saying they would need $2 million or more.

Perhaps Gen X is being realistic. Even $1 million won’t provide a cushy lifestyle. A 64-year-old retiring next year with that amount would receive an annual payout of only $49,000 a year, according to Blackrock’s CoRI index, which tracks the income your savings will provide in retirement. Looked at another way: purchasing an immediate annuity for $1 million today would buy $5,000 of monthly income, according to ImmediateAnnuities.com. Not bad. But less than most might expect.

Gen X has boosted savings since the recession, the survey found. The typical Gen X nest egg is now $70,000, more than double savings of just $32,000 in 2007. This suggests that Gen X did a good job of sticking to their 401(k) contribution rate during the downturn, buying stocks while they were low and enjoying the rebound. Millennials did a little better, going from $9,000 to $32,000. Baby Boomers were less likely to hang in through the tough times, partly because older boomers were already retired and taking distributions. The median boomer next egg has risen to $127,000 from $75,000 in 2007.

Overall, Baby Boomers felt the brunt of the downturn. They suffered more layoffs and wage cuts, took a bigger hit to their assets, and by a wide margin more Boomers believe their standard of living will fall in retirement. But at least many Boomers are still blessed with traditional pensions and have a better shot at collecting full Social Security benefits.

Millennials are old enough to have learned from the downturn but not so old that they had many assets at risk. This generation began saving at age 22, vs. age 27 for Gen X and age 35 for boomers. Millennials also benefit from modern 401(k) plan structures with easy and smart investment options like target-date funds and managed accounts.

Meanwhile, Gen X is largely pensionless and was something of a 401(k) guinea pig when members entered the labor force. Plans then were untested and lacked many of today’s investment options or any educational material. The plans may have been mismanaged, subject to higher fees or even ignored. Even today, the Gen X contribution rate of 7% lags that of Millennials (8%) and Boomers (10%). Gen X is also most likely to borrow or take an early withdrawal from their plan (27%, vs. 20% for Millennials and 23% for boomers). Some of this relates to their period in life. But they have other reasons to feel glum too.

Still, there is some hope for Gen X. Recent research by EBRI found that if this generation manages to keep investing in their 401(k)s, most could end up with a decent retirement—no worse than Baby Boomers. And they still have time. If Gen Xers raise their savings rate a bit more, they can retire even more comfortably.

Do you want help getting your retirement planning off the ground? Email makeover@moneymail.com for a chance at a makeover from a financial pro and to appear in the pages of Money magazine.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser