Long-term saving crucial to future of 'Generation X'


There's good reason why the music of young people often sounds a bit harsh and angry these days. It's a negativity tied to poor job opportunities, a weak economy, heavy college debts and generally lowered expectations. Worse yet, the drive for independence is often hampered by an economic need to live at home with Mom and Dad.

Americans in their 20s, designated "Generation X" by Douglas Coupland in the title of his 1991 novel, aren't optimistic about the future.

This carries through to their attitude toward money. They're motivated consumers, spending $200 billion annually on items such as electronic gear and athletic equipment, but savings and investment don't keep pace.

Historically, Americans in their 20s have never been great savers. But as the financial burden for all forms of financial security and retirement is increasingly thrust on the individual, long-term savings will be more important than it was for prior generations.

"A high proportion of young people feel Social Security will never give them anything because baby boomers will bankrupt the system," observed William Dunn, author of "The Baby Bust: A Generation Comes of Age" (American Demographic Books, Ithaca, N.Y.: 1993).

"And, while they are voracious and smart consumers, economics was a big black hole in their education," Mr. Dunn wrote.

Lack of confidence about the economic future should be motivation to take one's own financial future in hand. The growth rate of early, steady investing goes a long way.

For example, an individual who begins making an automatic monthly investment of $50 a month at age 25, assuming an 8 percent return, will have amassed $174,550 by the age of 65.

On the other hand, if that same person delays until age 35 the start of that same $50 monthly investment, the total will be a considerably less princely sum of $74,517 by retirement age.

"Generation X is more technology-oriented and open to concepts such as our new StreetSmart investment software that permits 24-hour-a-day trading," said Thomas Taggart, an executive with discount broker Charles Schwab & Co.

The real power of mutual funds for an investor in his 20s is the fact that a number of funds require no transaction fees and let investors add to their positions in small amounts, Mr. Taggart noted.

Funds also offer diversity to investors who may not have enough money for larger purchases. There are also automatic deduction plans that take money out of paychecks or bank accounts.

"A good game plan for someone in his 20s is to put aside three to six months of living expenses and then invest 10 to 15 percent of earnings, preferably in mutual funds," advised Robert Barry, a board member of the International Association for Financial Planning and president of Compass Financial Planning in Succasunna, N.J.

Generation X has a good head for numbers and can observe the life experiences of relatives who waited too long to plan for retirement, Mr. Barry added.

His favorite funds include Invesco Industrial Income, Twentieth Century Ultra Investors, Neuberger & Berman Limited Maturity Bond, Vanguard Fixed-Income Short-Term Corporate Bond, PIMCO Total Return and Robertson Stephens Emerging Growth.

"Young people should invest primarily in stocks, especially growth and international funds, since it's quite likely they'll receive 10 percent or more return for the long run," said Stephen Utkus, an executive in planning and development with the Vanguard Group of mutual funds.

They should make a point to invest in a retirement plan, such as a company 401(k) plan, or an individual retirement account, he added.

But no one said it would be easy.

"A lot of young people are carrying a heavy debt load from college, much more than their parents experienced, and they're employed at lower levels than what they were trained for in college," noted Allan Schnaiberg, professor of sociology and urban affairs at Northwestern University.

It's true that spending is a big part of one's 20s and nearer-term financial goals of young people will involve cars, condominiums or homes. But even a small amount of long-term investing goes far. The way the future's shaping up, financial self-reliance will be all-important.

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