Advisors are scrambling to find ways to serve millennials, the youngest generation of workers. This cohort, comprising those age 15 to 34 and born between 1980 and 1999, number 87 million according to the U.S. Census. They now make up the nation’s largest generation ever, surpassing baby boomers. This year, millennials became the largest segment of the labor force with 53.5 million employed individuals—around one-third of the total.
These numbers matter because age can be a wedge between financial advisors and their potential clients. The average age of an advisor is 57 years, while millennials’ average age is closer to 27.
“It’s hard to know how different we might be,” says Tyler Landes, a young planner who graduated from college in 2009 and went on to found Tandem Financial Guidance in Kansas City, Mo. “We have the same kind of dreamer’s attitude that [boomers] probably had at our age, but there are ways that millennials are different from young people in the past.” He points to their access to technology, the speed with which they get information, the way they relate to one another and the things they value.
But millennials are also largely oblivious to financial services. A recent survey by the Insured Retirement Institute and the Center for Generational Kinetics found that only 38% of millennials know what a financial advisor does.
On the other hand, most advisors don’t prospect in this group. Hartford Funds in Radnor, Pa., found in its third annual “Advisor Anxiety Survey” that advisors target millennials less often than they do other generations.
Bill McManus, Hartford’s director of strategic markets, says, “When people hear ‘millennials,’ they’re associating the term with someone who is just out of school, saddled with student debt, perhaps living in their parents’ basement.”
But that doesn’t capture the reality of a diverse group that can’t be easily compartmentalized. “The age range includes people who have been working for 15 years, people who are married with families,” McManus says. “Advisors aren’t realizing those 30-something workers are millennials.”
Furthermore, cultural differences aside, young adults are similar to their predecessors in important ways, says New York advisor Gregg Fisher. “I don’t think anything really makes them different,” says Fisher, who founded New York-based Gerstein Fisher two decades ago at the age of 21 and continues to serve younger people. “They still want to get a good job, start a business, make a living, reduce their tax bill, get married, buy a home and educate their kids.
“What these people are trying to accomplish is not different than it was for people 25 to 35 years ago.”
Still, we can speak to some differences: Millennials are more educated than previous generations. More than 60% have attended college, according to the 2012 American Communities Survey, while just 46% of the baby boomer generation has.
Still, although they are educated, millennials, like Americans in general, lag in financial literacy. Advisors can take advantage of the education gap, says Adam Paoli of the Heartland Group of Chicago. “What used to be a relationship business has become an information business,” he says. “We should be concerned about where [clients] get their information from. If you Google a headache, you’re going to find articles that make you convinced that you have a tumor. There’s a lot of what I call ‘financial pornography’ on the Internet. You’re going to have clients who know more, but are also misinformed.”
A Different World
The world that millennials are facing will be different, in any case.
Daniel Wrenne of Lexington, Ky.-based Wrenne Financial, says that in the future millennials will have less access to pensions and federal entitlements. “It’s harder to get ahead,” he says.
And how are millennials behaving in this environment? “The savings behavior is different, and long-term goals like homeownership or retirement take a backseat to short-term experiential opportunities,” Wrenne says. “There’s definitely a spectrum that are savers, and some who live in the moment and have issues with accumulating debt.”
Millennials may be less likely to measure success through asset accumulation because the headwind of debt has pushed back their goals. For example, while homeownership is a goal for most Americans, for many millennials it doesn’t appear to be a priority. According to the 2015 “U.S. Renter Confidence Study” by Apartment List, a site for rental listings, 74% of millennials intend to purchase a home at some point in the future, but more than half that number plan on waiting three or more years before doing so.
Debt isn’t the only difference. Brandon Marcott, the founder of Edify Financial planning in Waukesha, Wis., says many millennials are delaying or deferring life decisions. “Traditionally, people graduate, get a job, get married, have a kid, and the next big step is a home purchase,” says Marcott. “Now the next steps are not a given. Millennials hesitate to carry debt on top of their student loans. Part of that is due to their desire not to be tied down to one place. Millennials want to look at the future and see a blank slate.”
The changing relationship between young workers and their jobs is changing the shape of career paths, says Noah Morgan of Acorn Wealth Advisors in Grand Blanc, Mich. “The new workplace objective is ‘work to live, not live to work,’” says Morgan, who just turned 30. “This is certainly not a group of people who want to work at desks their entire lives. I think it’s a delayed life cycle of work. Now everyone goes to college and from day one they’re $28,000 to $40,000 in debt. The mentality is to rent for several years.”
But homeownership is still part of the American dream, and millennials seek financial advice to help tackle their student debt. “One of the first things we talk to our clients about is student loans,” says Marcott, who says that 75% of his clientele are under the age of 35. “That’s what they want [help] with: Should they refinance? Should they consolidate? Can we help them look at forgiveness options?”