Millennials often get a bad rap when it comes to responsibility. Apparently, they change jobs too frequently. They put off marriage. They are busy spending all their money on avocado toast instead of deposits for housing or long term savings.

A recent survey of 1,037 Americans found less than a third of millennials are contributing to a retirement fund, while another study by Merrill Edge revealed that they are saving – they’re just not saving for retirement. So are millennials really less skilled at managing their money than previous generations?

Decade after decade, young people have dodged the idea of planning for their old age

Maybe not. Decade after decade, young people have dodged the idea of planning for their old age. This reluctance is nothing new. A study from 1998, for example, found that younger baby boomers were saving less for retirement than older baby boomers.

Douglas Hershey, director of the Retirement Planning Research Lab at Oklahoma State University says it has more to do with young people in general than millennials.

I don’t think there’s much difference in how important millennials think retirement is, or their attitudes, from Boomers when they were in their 20s – Douglas Hershey

“I don’t think there’s much difference in how important millennials think retirement is, or their attitudes, from say Boomers when they were in their 20s.”

More important, he says, are certain psychological characteristics that affect how we save, no matter the age. One factor he points to is future time perspective. “Some people think about the future five, 10, 20 years out, whereas other people are more present-oriented. It’s a pretty stable personality trait. They tend to carry it throughout their lives.” He adds that being conscientious and detail-oriented are other good predictors of whether people plan and save for retirement.

Even so, he points to more immediate financial concerns for the current generation, like rising house prices and educational costs.

Sophia Bera is a 33-year-old financial planner based in Austin, Texas and founder of Gen Y Planning who works predominantly with people under 36-years-old. She finds that millennials are more concerned about aggressively paying off student loan debt than saving for retirement.

“If they just went to law school or medical school, they say they know they should save for retirement but they really want to get a handle on their student loans first. For millennials, being debt-free is almost like the new American dream, more so than home ownership, because it causes more stress.” She says that clients will often decide to pay off debt before other priorities, even when it makes more financial sense to put it off.

Facing different challenges

Recent reports that millennials aren’t saving enough for retirement can also be explained by the way in which millennials have to approach it these days.

Making broad statements can be problematic because different countries have different national retirement schemes. Some, like Australia and Switzerland, have compulsory pension schemes where workers are obliged to pay into a retirement account. Others, like the US, have public pay-as-you-go schemes like Social Security that aim to keep retired people out of poverty, bolstered by individual retirement accounts with employer contributions. But it is also true that pension systems of decades’ past, and other safety nets like social security, are under more pressure than ever.

One big shift in the past few decades has moved responsibility for retirement saving away from the company and back towards the individual, says Philip Davis, a professor of banking and finance at Brunel University in London and fellow at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

“The big shifts for funded schemes are from defined benefit to defined contribution,” he says. “Meaning that we are moving from the type of fund that would guarantee a certain income from retirement until you die to something that you pay into, where the payout is driven by the market.”

It is relatively new that people are called upon to plan their own futures in a complex financial planning domain, rather than letting the company take care of things on their behalf  – Douglas Hershey

“It is relatively new that people are called upon to plan their own futures in a complex financial planning domain, rather than letting the company take care of things on their behalf,” says Hershey, “The worker is now in the driver seat, and they need to be making important decisions.”

Diversifying

With the onus back on the worker to educate themselves, it is not hard to see why some younger people prefer to stick their heads in the sand.

Not everyone though. Angel Fernandez Amores is a 30-year-old former consultant from Madrid. He says that most people he knows are planning to rely on the public pension system in Spain. “Having said that, Spain is not in the best situation. The demography is changing quite a lot and whether this pension fund will be sustainable in the long run remains to be seen.”

The decade-long economic crisis prompted him to learn how to save towards his retirement, and he ultimately decided to buy an investment property in Madrid a couple years ago, when prices were at historic lows.

“I don’t see myself ever living there with my family. But it’s a great investment for a younger person, or in the future, the income could help fund retirement,” he says.

Perhaps millennials, many of whom lived through the global financial crisis, and have been staying away from investing in shares have more confidence in bricks and mortar as a source of retirement income.

Bera says more of her clients are asking about investment properties, especially those that live in cities with skyrocketing housing costs. “Instead of buying their own home, they opt to save for investment in a home elsewhere and take the rental income.”

Nicole Wong, a 28-year-old veterinarian from Hong Kong, intends to use rental income during retirement. She is currently living in Brisbane, Australia. She says she has calculated how much money she will need to retire, depending on how long she lives, and that her priority is to buy a house. “I also intend to have at least one property investment and a share portfolio that will support my retirement.” She says many of her friends in Hong Kong plan to move somewhere with a lower cost of living when they retire.

And still others think they may never need to retire. At least one survey indicated 30% of younger respondents (aged 18-24) don’t plan to retire at all. So, who knows, maybe the millennials who have already disrupted countless industries may end up reinventing retirement too.

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