Jennifer Leigh Parker, CNBC.com
Getting a car, finding a date, and starting a career are common concerns for your average twenty-something.
But today's 20 year olds, often called Generation Y or the Millennials, are also busy thinking about retirement.
Young American workers are not expecting Social Security or traditional corporate pensions to provide for their retirement. Their parents' lack of retirement readiness is also increasing their awareness, and acting as a wake-up call.
"My dad would love to retire at 65, but he's putting it off because of the swings in the aviation business. I'm concerned," said JoAnne Farrell, a 29-year-old web manager at a design firm in San Francisco.
Retirement readiness is decreasing with time. According to a new study by State Street Global Advisors, 2012 is the first year that assets invested in pension plans top those invested in 401(k) retirement savings plans. At the same time, the study finds that Generation X, or people in their late 30s and 40s, are not nearly as prepared for retirement as their older counterparts, the Baby Boomers.
"Clearly it is the young who have the understanding that 'somebody else isn't worried about this for me. I have to do this,'" said Dallas Salisbury, CEO of Employee Benefit Research.
It is up to twenty-somethings to fund their own retirement. The trouble is, they're not quite sure how to do it.
Jenny Stein, 27, and Matt DeTore, 26, are planning for retirement.Elena Nikolova, a 23-year-old associate for an energy consultancy in Washington, D.C., has a 401(k) plan through her employer, but has not made a contribution yet.
"It's intimidating. First of all, I don't know what to invest in, and I'm not even sure this money is going to grow. I feel like I need to hire somebody to do it for me, which defeats the whole purpose," she added.
Jenny Stein, a 27-year-old senior tax accountant for Ernst & Young, shares similar concerns.
"I have a 401(k) with Fidelity through work, but it's confusing. People say you need to be aggressive with your asset classes when you're young. I don't know what that means," she said.
Even when employers don't offer a 401(k) plan, young workers are seeking out other investment options. Stein's boyfriend, Matt DeTore, works for a physical therapy office on Long Island, and set up an individual retirement account on his own through a local bank. He's 26 years old.
"After 2008, we've created a generation of people who want to put away for their future," said Kristi Mitchem, head of global defined contribution at State Street Global Advisors.
What's the Plan?
But for all their good intentions, a clear plan of action is sorely lacking.
"Not only do employees not have the right tools to save, they don't know what the available tools are." said Mitchem.
Elena Nikolova, 23, is starting to plan for retirement.For example, 28 percent of the employees surveyed didn't know whether their 401(k) plan offered automatic escalation. This tool offers employees the option to automatically raise their contribution level, typically starting at 3 percent of each paycheck, slowly over time.
The fault, says Mitchem, lies with employers who don't make 401(k) management easy, accessible or tailored.
"I think it would be really cool to talk about it with a counselor, so I can understand what to do, and how much I should be contributing," said Jenny Stein.
Not only do young workers need to understand what contribution rate is best for them, but they need guidance on the basics of investing. Plans such as a 401(k) are simply investment vehicles that can include everything from mutual funds to stocks, bonds, and cash. It is an asset, and its effective management requires a working knowledge of asset allocation.
"Every year, Mass Mutual comes to give us advice, but it's so basic and general it's kind of offensive. It's not targeted or specific enough to be helpful," said Kerri Bernstein, 30 years old, product manager at a Manhattan-based ecommerce firm.
Ideally, young, conservative savers want a tough-love savings coach, rather than a coddler.
Seventy-four percent of survey respondents said they would welcome auto-enrollment in a plan-sponsored "boot-camp," pushing them towards a 10-percent savings rate.
"Two to three percent auto-enrollment is standard, but there's no reason why companies need to start that low. There is a lot of tolerance for an increase to five to six percent of pay from employees, and companies should match that," said Brigitte Madrian, professor of public policy at Harvard University who contributed to State Street's research.
In full disclosure, State Street Global Advisors are benefit managers, meaning that the more employees are enrolled in their retirement plans, the more fees they will earn from participating companies. That said, Kristi Mitchem is urging companies with any benefit manager, not just State Street, to raise their contribution matching rates and promote retirement readiness.
"I would love for my employer to match my contributions," said Bernstein. Her ecommerce firm does not offer matching rates for its employees.
Apart from contribution rates, Madrian points out another crucial point: "The lion's share of retirement funds is lost when young participants decide to cash out early when they leave a job."
The younger generations are more prone to cash out because on average, they change jobs more frequently. The temptation is also higher, given life-stage needs of buying a home, paying for an education and other bills that leave this group at risk.
In this economic mix of uncertain job security, high unemployment, and high market volatility, young retirement savers need to know their options, and act on them. Luckily, they do have one advantage: the time to save.
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Jennifer Leigh Parker, CNBC.com