Despite the fact that I head up a research center at the St. Louis Fed on family wealth, my three risk-averse millennial children will not heed my free advice to invest some of their hard-earned savings in the stock market.
So they save—first because I made them, now because they want to—in online savings accounts, while my wife and I save overwhelmingly in our retirement accounts and the 529 college savings accounts we have set up for each kid’s college education.
Not surprisingly, our kids’ returns have been abysmal, while my and my wife’s returns (through well-managed target funds) have been fabulous.
My wife and I were willing to take some risks, while my kids were not. That’s understandable when one doesn’t have much savings or wealth to begin with.
What’s true for my kids is also true for the nation: the vast majority of Americans have no real stake in the stock market. According to my Center for Household Financial Stability colleague Lowell Ricketts, the wealthiest 10 percent of households own 83 percent of all stocks.
Further demographic analysis by Ricketts shows that stock ownership is highly concentrated among households that:
As you can see, millennials are not on that list.
In fact, additional analysis by Ricketts shows that about three in five millennials have no direct or indirect exposure to the stock market. Also, the holdings of the two in five who do have exposure are currently low (about $7,600 at the median) relative to the preceding generation (Generation X) at the same age.
Now, those facts may not be surprising, given that millennials are, well, young. But my colleagues Bill Emmons and Bryan Noeth also found that younger Americans today have significantly less wealth than their parents or grandparents did at a similar age. (See the PDF “Age, Birth Year and Wealth,” an essay from the St. Louis Fed’s 2015 publication, The Demographics of Wealth.)
In fact, they found that an American born in 1970 is likely to have 40 percent less wealth over their lifetimes than someone born in 1940. Ouch.
So, it’s a good thing millennials have Social Security to count on, right? Well, they don’t think so:
Despite all this, Pew also reports that 85 percent of millennials say they already have or will have enough resources to “lead the kind of life they want.” Not surprisingly, then, Pew finds that millennials perceive their financial prospects to be favorable even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
This means that:
I love the confidence of my kids and their generation, but sometimes it worries me.
How should millennials compensate for this? As hard as it may be for them to do, it seems like more exposure to the stock market must be part of the answer.
Despite the recent volatility, current and historical gains remain really impressive—and millennials certainly have the long time horizon necessary to realize those gains. Ideally more of them would invest through an employer-sponsored retirement account—if, of course, they’re lucky enough to have both an employer and one that offers a retirement plan.
And 529 plans would be great, too. These tax-advantaged savings plans are not just for college, but for what experts say is even more critical: lifelong learning.
We can’t just pin this all on millennials; policymakers could consider a few measures, as well.
One would be to explore and possibly expand retirement savings policies (such as “Secure Choice”) that several states, including Illinois, are pioneering for residents who lack access to a workplace retirement plan. Secure Choice programs generally work by automatically enrolling private-sector employees who lack access to employer-based retirement benefits into state-facilitated individual retirement accounts.
Another would be to look into efforts to lower tuition and student loan burdens, so that millennials actually have more money to save and invest.
For future generations, let’s consider a Roth IRA at birth for every child born in America, perhaps modeled on the federal Thrift Savings Plan government workers presently enjoy. Or, do for every kid what my wife and I did for our kids: open up a 529 college savings account when kids are born.
Both of these ideas—Roth IRAs and 529s at birth—would be responsible ways to expose kids and eventually all Americans to the stock market. Doing so also would set them on a path to post-secondary education (whether technical training, community college or a four-year degree) and a more secure retirement.
So, I’m going to keep trying to get my kids to invest. Let’s hope that they realize, unlike I did at their age, that Dad is sometimes right.
For more information on 529 college savings accounts and Roth IRAs, see:
For additional reading on stocks and saving, see: