Gen-Xers scared of Wall Street

People walk down Wall Street in New York City.

Tess Vigeland: Gen-X has seen more than its share of financial freakouts. Black Monday. The S&L crisis. The dot-com follies. And of course most recently, the Great Recession. So it's not terribly surprising that this generation -- loosely defined as adults born between the late 60s and early 80s -- are gun-shy when it comes to investing. But their skittishness about Wall Street may be doing them long-term harm.

Jilian Mincer is the senior investing reporter for SmartMoney.

Jilian Mincer: Gen-X actually has been conservative from the start. If you think about it, it makes sense. They've gone through all these kind of difficulties -- the tech bubble, the housing bubble, the oil crisis, the gold crisis -- and so they don't have a lot of faith in the economy and they don't have a lot of faith in the market. So, they're going to tend not to want to put all their eggs in one basket in the market.

The other consideration is that they're kind of a little laid back. And so, even if they have been auto-enrolled into 401(k) plans at work, they've probably left it at that 3 percent and forgotten about it. And if they have, they're going to be way behind for retirement.

Vigeland: I am a Gen-Xer, and you know, I have to say I can understand why the tendency would be toward conservative investing, because we are probably the first generation that never knew a pension. And now, we are really the first ones to totally have to manage our retirement on our own, and a lot of it is education. You know, you just don't know that you're doing it right.

Mincer: You not only have to -- and I say "we," and there about 46 million of us -- not only won't we have a pension -- only about 14 percent of private employers provide pensions any more -- but also can expect some really steep health care costs.

Vigeland: Right. I wonder if that is affecting an unwillingness to take a risk in the stock market, because you just don't know how things are going to shake out.

Mincer: That's true, but at the same time, we have to expect to at least try to accumulate enough savings to last 20 or 30 years, and many people believe that the biggest risk is actually that we outlive our assets, especially if we see a lot inflation during that time.

The other thing is that investing is much more complicated. I mean, it's not just investing in the United States or in Europe. You need exposure throughout the world, you need different asset classes. So it's complicated, so people do have the right to be intimidated. It's OK to invest conservatively, but then you just have to save a lot more.

Vigeland: Right. What's the best way to start maybe getting yourself a little more comfortable with investing in the market or I don't know, setting aside more?

Mincer: A great thing to do is if you have a workplace 401(k) plan, is to use some of the tools on the plan. They all have it. So do all our websites, SmartMoney.com. And you know, get familiar with the names of the things, the different types of investments. Just start it. And every time you get a raise, save some of it, but also put some more of it into your retirement account and savings account. Also listening to shows like yours, reading websites like mine. I mean, you really do need to be informed.

Vigeland: You know, we've been talking about Gen-X, but I wonder if this also applies to the generations following, Y and whatever the rest of them are called these days.

Mincer: Absolutely. You're right on the mark there. We're seeing some preliminary data that indicates that Gen Y is even more conservative than Gen X. The one thing that that generation has going forward is it doesn't expect to get Social Security. So it's anticipating being responsible for its own retirement and health care costs.

Vigeland: So it really sounds like the lesson here, for everyone, is open a Roth IRA when you're two, right?

Mincer: Yeah. It sounds that way. But what they found is that starting young is one of the best things, because you have that compounding interest, and even if you're just putting away just a little bit. I remember someone advising me and husband, just put away $50 a month and that really can grow. And this isn't hopeless, you have time on your side, but to start saving. And then put it on an automatic, whether it is going into an IRA or a 401(k), wherever it's going, just have it taken out every paycheck, so you can't miss it.

Vigeland: Alright. Jilian Mincer is senior investing reporter for SmartMoney.com. Thanks so much for coming in.

Mincer: Thanks for having me.

Vigeland: For more thoughts on how mid-life adults are dealing with investing decisions, go to our Makin' Money blog.

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