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Retirement planning for Gen X and millennials: Make it bite-sized

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We’ve often heard that millennials and younger members of Generation X are not adequately preparing for retirement. Some observers suggest that this is because of student debt, poor financial literacy or a penchant for latte living. Perhaps, but there may be more to it than that

There is a sea of red taillights between the airport and my home. Luckily, Devon, a 30-something part-time ride-share driver and full-time chatterbox, makes the stop-and-go journey more enjoyable.

I spy a tattoo of a seagull and a wave on her arm. “Do you like the beach?” I ask. Her eyes widen, and with a smile that fills the rearview mirror, she exclaims, “Just love it!”

I press her, “Do you plan to retire to the Cape?” Her smile fades and she curtly responds, “I don’t have time to think about that. There is too much to do right now.”

Devon is not alone. She and many younger people don’t have the time to think, let alone plan, for a life that is still three-plus decades away. This is not about retirement economics. This is attention economics.

Time and attention are more precious and difficult to come by than money. And while money is necessary for retirement security, there must first be time to allocate the attention required to plan for life down the road. And many people, particularly middle-aged adults, say they have no time.

America’s time crunch

It appears that many of us don’t even have time to eat. Frito-Lay’s most recent annual nationwide snack survey showed that 80% of Americans “feel like their days have fewer hours” — something Frito-Lay


dubbed a national “time crunch.” 

The results also showed that 85% of younger adults say they feel that time crunch the most. The data indicate that people are snacking more to save time eating or because they are too busy to cook. The survey shows that the average American has only 52 minutes to prepare and eat all three meals daily, and one-third of survey respondents said they had a total of 30 minutes.

Millennials and young Gen X-ers are particularly stressed and strapped for time. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time Use Survey shows that Gen Z members and baby boomers are time-rich, while adults between the ages of 35 and 54 are time-poor. On average, millennials and younger members of Generation X spend less time caring for themselves, including fewer hours sleeping and less time eating, drinking or playing than other age groups. In contrast, they spend more time working and caring for others.

This is not news to anyone in this age cohort or who has lived through those years. People in their late 30s through their early 50s typically have more immediate and urgent demands on their time and less time for themselves. These are also the years when devoting attention to planning, saving and investing is critical to ensuring financial security in the time-rich retirement years.

My economist and spreadsheet-obsessed friends might sternly reply, “You just make the time.” That is one approach. However, that approach has Gen X rolling their eyes at the idea of retirement. Fully 55% of the members of that generation believe they will be financially unprepared for life after they’re done working.

Snack-sizing retirement planning

Employer retirement-plan sponsors, retirement-product manufacturers and financial professionals might want to borrow from the pretzel-and-potato-chip business to make planning, saving and investing more snackable. 

Learning about, understanding and choosing financial products is time-consuming. Retirement planning is fun for very few people; for most, it is work. And like Devon, even fewer people can realistically envision themselves decades in the future, especially when today’s demands are only minutes away.

How might the financial services industry make retirement planning bite-sized?

In very broad strokes, this might include creating easily accessible, ubiquitous, short, relevant and ultimately engaging content to command attention and nudge people to action.

Make it easy and automatic. We have learned that access to 401(k)s, 403(b)s and similar benefits that make enrollment automatic and require little to no attention on the part of the investor can successfully help employees prepare for the future.

Provide snippets of information, not employee seminars. Many experts simultaneously marvel and shudder in horror at the number of people seeking financial advice on TikTok, sometimes referred to as “FinTok,” but those short videos are getting more hits than most finance websites. In a time-starved world, even critically important issues must compete for attention and fit in whenever and wherever possible.

Frame advice for tomorrow in terms of today. For example, if people are focused on caring for their parents, discuss with them caregiving options today, but then use that opportunity to pivot the conversation to how they can prepare for tomorrow.

Deliver experiences, not meetings. Every other industry is seeking to excite and engage its customers. Meetings in windowless rooms that feature large screens filled with mind-numbing content and reams of paper will always be put off until absolutely necessary. 

Many will snarl at a call to reduce the time and attention necessary to help people ensure they have a secure financial future. Go ahead, snarl. Successful businesses take clients as they are, not as they wish them to be. 

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