Wall Street sees an opportunity in baby boomers

Sandy and Jim deBettencourt look through their finances in their dining room in Skokie, Ill.

Fed up with hearing about millennials? So is Wall Street. At the moment, an enormous amount of energy and money at America’s biggest financial firms is focused on a very different generation, with trillions of dollars at stake: Big banks want baby boomers, big time.

Boomers are hot targets for banks and financial advisers eager for a slice of their retirement savings. While wary of Wall Street’s aggressive sales pitch, more and more older Americans feel they could use some advice. Why? Because they face the most challenging retirement landscape in modern U.S. history, one that is complicated by longer lifespans, the slow disappearance of pensions and rapidly multiplying offerings of complex financial products.

Sandy and Jim deBettencourt are typical examples of Wall Street’s current obsession. On a recent morning, they looked over their financial picture while sitting at their dining room table in Skokie, Illinois. For them - like most Americans - this is more of a puzzle, made up of piles of paper and scrolling screens of online text and graphs. It’s a lot more complicated than what their parents had to deal with.

“My dad never had to do this,” Sandy deBettencourt says, speaking longingly about his far simpler landscape of pension and Social Security checks.

Sandy deBettencourt is 58 and teaches second grade, which means she expects a pension. But she has worried in recent years, as pensions have come under pressure and governments come up short of funding.

Jim is 62, a tech consultant and teacher. Like many Americans, he has worked at several places, which means his savings are an increasingly typical grab bag of different retirement accounts and investments. Lately, the deBettencourts have sought professionals to sort everything out and plan ahead.

“It has, partially, become way too complicated to really understand what’s going on and it’s very hard to figure out who you should trust,” says Jim deBettencourt.

For a long time, banks and advisers weren’t exactly lining up to earn that trust and win that business. The deBettencourts heard little from financial marketers until about five years ago. These days, they get pitched all the time. They get all sorts of fliers in the mail and see endless ads on their favorite shows and websites from banks, financial advisers and insurance companies.

“Now, I feel like they’re marketing toward me,” Sandy deBettencourt says.

They certainly are.

"Financial Gerontology" revitalized

We can get a peek at just how hard Wall Street is gunning for older Americans inside a corner meeting room in a tower high above Midtown Manhattan. Bank executive Cyndi Hutchins is talking strategy with Jeff James, a longtime financial adviser with many older clients. She’s got quite a title: Director of Financial Gerontology for Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

That’s a brand new position, previously unheard of at big financial firms. Its mere existence demonstrates how seriously the company takes the older demographic. Wall Street’s historic gold rush for older Americans’ money has brought to prominence a once obscure field called financial gerontology. Firms across Wall Street are currently looking for folks like Hutchins, with financial experience, but also special understanding of older clients (in her case, a graduate gerontology degree). A lot of money is up for grabs.

“It’s $22 trillion that will be money in motion over the next several years with these clients that are retiring,” Hutchins says. “It’s not a small opportunity. It’s a huge market that we’re looking at.”

She, and many others in finance who want the business of older Americans, need to learn new tricks. Chief among those tricks is grappling with an era of longer lifespans and crushing medical expenses. Hutchins says clients are deeply concerned about how to save for a retirement that may last 40 years and how to put enough money away to take care of future medical expenses. Modern advisers also need to know how to deal with the increasingly shaky ground under the longtime pillars of American retirements: pensions and Social Security.

With Wall Street racing to figure out what older clients today need and how to win their business, the aggressive push is worrying those who look out for retirees. One false move in financial planning can ripple for decades.

“People really have to do a lot of homework to make sure they’re going to be both with an adviser and then also with the type of products that can meet their needs,” says AARP's executive vice president Debra Whitman. “It has to be from somebody that the individual trusts and is looking out for their interest, not just trying to sell them something.”

Back at the deBettencourt’s dining room in Illinois, this isn’t about bank profits or a marketing opportunity or some interesting demographic trend. It’s their life. And it can be a little scary.

“We’re the ones that all these changes in retirements, the loss of pension funds, things like that, we’re the experiment in seeing whether or not it works,” says Jim deBettencourt.

Just think: You and people you love are living that high-stakes financial gerontology experiment right now, the very thing Wall Street wants in on.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter and substitute host for Marketplace, based in New York.

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