The media proliferates stories analyzing millennial work ethics, buying patterns and values. With millennials consuming more media than any other generation, it’s always frustrating to see Twitter dominated with stereotypical headlines like “Are Millennials Lazy, Entitled Narcissists?” or “Desperate and In Debt.”
You’d think the message would be better tailored to the audience by now. Born during the perfect storm between 1980 and 2005, millennials came of age with the Internet, and pursued education during the worst financial crisis in recent memory, now holding more student debt than Gen Xers and Baby Boomers combined.
With more than $1.3 trillion in college loans, millennials face an unprecedented challenge in establishing investment habits for building wealth and retiring. They can’t depend on the safety nets of pensions, Social Security and employee profit-sharing on which their parents built their lifestyles.
However, millennials are now well-established in their careers, and already contribute more to 401ks earlier in their careers than Gen Xers. Once their student debt is paid off, it’ll be time to invest. So, looking to the future, how should they judge investment opportunities? What social influences will impact millennials’ wealth-building habits?
This group of millennials is the best-educated and most diverse generation in America. Their tech know-how and thriftiness will be the biggest influencers of how they invest their estimated $2 trillion in liquid assets in the years to come.
Generational Student Debt
Education costs were already causing student debt to grow at unprecedented levels before the financial meltdown of 2008. Demand for degrees, coupled with an economy losing manufacturing jobs, meant that costs kept going up, but students paid because they grew up hearing they could be anything they wanted to be if they had a college degree.
When the economy crashed, many people went back to school out of necessity — they lost jobs and scuttled for cover in graduate school. Younger millennials saw college-graduated elder siblings laid off, so they studied for GMAT and LSAT exams right after graduation, not yet prepared to compete with mid- to late-twenty somethings for entry-level jobs.
The financial crisis impacted millennials as saliently as did the Internet. Seeing their parents lose savings, or suffer through unemployment, made them a thrifty generation — a slice of the population that shares its resources and has no problem calling mom and dad “roomies” to save a buck.
Will debt define this generation?
As suppressing student debt continues to linger over their heads , long-standing social and economic milestones like marriage, family and home ownership are deliberately delayed, defining a new subset of “not-quite-a-grownup” post-graduate life stage. Yet millennials still rank paying off debt and saving for retirement their highest financial priorities.
So the question is, will debt define this generation? Or will optimism and the entrepreneurial spirit that made tech and the sharing economy thrive breed alternative approaches to overcoming debt and building wealth in the private markets?
The student debt crisis spurred innovations in the lending space, giving rise to platforms like Prosper, offering peer-to-peer lending; WeFinance, providing crowdfunded loans with terms set by the borrower, geared toward graduates; and Givling, a video game costing a small fee that pays off users’ student debt in the order they sign up.
Where Will Millennials Invest Once Their Debts Are Paid?
With a long investment time frame, lower risk tolerance and a world of information available at their fingertips, millennials have a number of financial advantages.
Technology and new regulations are giving the youngest generation of adults cutting-edge ways to invest their assets. There are numerous fintech startups ready to cater to millennials at any stage, from venture capital to chump change.
Online equity funding is one sector poised to capitalize on this shift in investment priorities and distrust in traditional investing practices. Silicon Valley giant AngelList effectively funded 243 startups from the crowd last year, and vertical-specific platforms like CircleUp, AgFunder and Realty Mogul have successfully captured niche investor segments.
Once Title IV of the JOBS Act goes into effect, anyone will be able to invest in an early stage company via equity funding, and millennials will be a likely target. However, for now, most platforms are only open to accredited investors — people worth more than $1 million, or making more than $200,000 per year.
It’ll take some time before this generation builds the confidence to get back into the stock market.
Beyond private equity, Wealthfront offers free portfolio management, Betterment is cheap and automated for optimal returns and with Motif Investing, investors can put money into low-cost themed portfolios.
Additionally, Robinhood boasts free stock trades from their mobile app, and with Acorns, investors can invest change from the rounded dollar of their bank card transactions — a truly passive way to put money aside.
While detrimental in many ways, the financial crisis helped millennials value cooperation, and instilled a sense of frugality that will help them build wealth in the future. However, the trauma of that period may have had lasting effects on this group’s views toward investing.
According to USA Today, millennials prefer cash three times as much as stock. It’ll take some time before this generation builds the confidence to get back into the stock market, and technology will be the key to winning us over.