The notion of retirement as a life of full-time leisure and lollygagging has gone by the wayside for most of today’s workers. Perhaps no group feels it more acutely than Generation X, that beleaguered group of 35- to 50-year olds, who are lodged in the difficult middle years of life and simultaneously find themselves stuck between the society-changing boomers and the up-and-coming millennials.
Generation Xers are burdened by greater debt loads than baby boomers, but also have become more comfortable with debt as a way of life. It’s a potent one-two punch that darkens their financial future, concludes research from Golden Valley-based Allianz Life in a study of 2,000 boomers and Xers. Katie Libbe, vice president of consumer insights for Allianz Life and a boomer herself, wants Gen Xers to wake up and smell the coffee.
Q: Generation X, generally those born between 1965 and 1980, were hit harder by the recession than any other age group. How has that shaped their view of retirement planning?
A: If you compare the three generations, the Gen Xers feel like they got the short straw. Baby boomers had pensions; they’ll get Social Security. And millennials have time on their side. Gen Xers racked up college debt, and they maybe bought their house at the top of bubble before the bubble burst. Our research had a lot of data on the “post-crash” mindset. Generation Xers were very skeptical that things could really turn out for them. A big theme was about debt and what to do about it: I can’t save because I’ve got all this debt.
Q: How big of a factor is college debt in preventing Generation X from seeing beyond the next few years?
A: It’s a big factor. A lot of Gen Xers were encouraged to get that degree no matter how much it cost. It’s unfortunate, because it has become almost impossible to pay for college without taking out student loans. And then you’re strapped when you get out of college. You need a level of work that’s going to allow you to pay for a $1,000-a-month student loan, which can be a tall order. Generation X is the first generation that’s had to deal with that.
Q: Your report says Gen Xers have their head in the sand when it comes to retirement. What does that mean?
A: They’re taking a pragmatic and realistic look at a traditional retirement — where one day you stop working completely and it’s all leisure — and they’re saying: That’s not going to happen. They know they need to build some financial security. And yet two-thirds of them, about 64 percent, look at the uncertainty and the difficulty of trying to estimate what they’re going to need that far out and don’t take any action at all. This “head in the sand” notion is about recognizing that they should be building financial security but on the other hand not doing anything about it. The Gen Xers think: I’ve always landed on my feet. I’ll figure it out when I’m closer to retirement.
Q: So there’s a false sense of confidence along with a deep sense of hopelessness?
A: Definitely. In one focus group, we were talking about saving for retirement. They were overwhelmed by uncertainty. How do I know what my expenses are going to be 20 years from now? Someone said, “I needed to have $1 million when I retire. That’s never going to happen.” Someone else, who was 35, said, “Yeah, you will. A million is doable when you have 30 years.” A million dollars sounds like a lot, and it is. But if you save $100 every month and you bump it up over time, you could be there. I really got the sense that if you put a compound interest calculator in front of somebody and showed them what would happen if they took a hiatus from spending on the credit card, paid down that debt and started saving, they’d be amazed at what they’d have in 20 years.
Q: Our parents or grandparents felt as if owing money was a stigma. Your research calls out Gen Xers’ comfort level with debt. How big of a concern is this?
A: When we compared baby boomers to Generation X, we definitely could see that use of credit increased with the Gen Xers. More than three quarters, 76 percent, of Gen Xers got their first credit card between the ages of 18 and 24. Boomers started the trend, but it became a way of life for many Gen Xers. There are many Americans that are using a credit card to potentially live beyond their means. There’s nothing wrong with a mortgage for a house, or a certain amount of credit card debt if you pay down the balance every month. But Gen Xers and even the millennials need to take advantage of the time value of money. You can’t decide when you’re 10 years away from retirement that you’re going to start socking money away. You’ve lost ability for the value of time to make that money grow.
Q: What should Gen Xers be doing?
A: I look at it in stages. First you’ve got to pay down debt and live on a cash basis. Then you have to save for emergencies, so when the transmission goes out, you don’t have to go back into debt. Now you can begin saving toward long-term goals or even short-term goals if they’re something like buying a house or a condo. Gen Xers have been said to be really good problem solvers. But first they need to know: Is it worth it and can I do it?