What's with the financial services industry and millennials? The rap is that these young adults are too conservative with money. They're savers, not investors. The challenge, we're told, is to convince millennials to invest more in stocks for their retirement.
Basically, I think the advice is misplaced. For one thing, millennials with jobs that come with benefits are typically invested in the stock market. For example, target-date funds are popular with younger workers with 401(k)s. A target-date fund uses a mix of asset classes that follow a predetermined reallocation, shifting over time from a heavy reliance on equities into fixed income. Suzanne Woolley of Bloomberg Business notes, "Some of these funds start out with equity weightings as high as 90 percent."
My bigger point is that the "millennials should load up on stocks" advice looks only at one transition — retirement. Yes, the financial services industry makes money from long-term retirement savings. But for many young adults the financial focus should be on building up safe savings without paying fees (or very slim fees) to the financial services industry.
One reason savings matters is job insecurity. The investment firm Research Associates calculates that from January 1990 to mid-2014 the monthly unemployment rate (seasonally adjusted) for workers between ages 20 and 24 averaged 10 percent and for those 25 to 34, 6 percent. (The 45-plus had the lowest average unemployment rate, 4 percent.) Young workers need a rainy-day fund to tide them through spells of unemployment and underemployment.
Even more important, retirement is only one transition. A millennial might choose to change careers, start a business, get married, have a child, move to a different state, go back to school, or all of the above. Having savings makes it easier to fund multiple transitions. Savings and opportunity, like risk and return, are two sides of the same coin.
The millennial generation is the best-educated generation in U.S. history. They've made a huge investment that will pay off over their lifetimes. The simplest, most effective way to boost savings is to first, pay down debt and second, to "automate" savings by having your bank automatically shift money from checking to your savings account. There's always time for equities and other riskier investments once you've built up your rainy day/opportunity fund.
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor for "Marketplace" and a commentator for Minnesota Public Radio.