Generation X Most at Risk in Planning Study

A review of Northwestern Mutual’s 2015 Planning and Progress Study data shows Generation X has the poorest financial habits of all generations in the survey.

Northwestern Mutual defines Gen X as Americans aged 35 to 49—suggesting this age group more than either their older or younger working peers is facing serious financial hardship and relatively poor financial decisionmaking.

In addition to comprising the majority of “informal” planners, Gen X has more “spenders” than “savers” compared to other generations and is the least likely to have more savings than debt. Other findings show nearly four in 10 (37%) Gen Xers “do not at all feel financially secure.” This is more than any other generation, even Millennials, Northwestern Mutual notes. Not surprisingly, almost a quarter (23%) are “not at all confident” that they will achieve their financial goals later in life.

Northwestern Mutual finds a strong majority (66%) of Gen X expects to work past traditional retirement age due to necessity, with two in 10 (18%) believing they will never retire. The vast majority (82%) of Gen Xers who anticipate needing to work past the age of 65 feel they will need to do so because they will have insufficient retirement savings. Like other studies, this one seems to highlight a troubling disparity between workers’ hopes to stay in the workforce longer as a means to make up for a lack of retirement savings, and their limited ability to do so. Put simply, many people are driven out of the workforce earlier than they would like due to health reasons or employability problems.

“It is not easy being X,” says Rebekah Barsch, vice president, financial planning, Northwestern Mutual.

She points to the long list of challenges that have persisted for Gen Xers in the workforce: “From weathering a number of economic cycles, this group is juggling home mortgages, educational debt and lifestyle needs. Figuring out how to plan for the future can be daunting when faced with multiple demands that require real-time attention.”

Next: Gen X is facing a myriad of financial pressures.

While a lack of discipline is clearly a substantial factor, the financial pressures impacting Gen X may also be a function of life stage, Northwestern Mutual says. A significant portion of this segment is squarely in the "sandwich” generation—as more than 4 in 10 (44%) live with children under 18 and over a quarter have a parent or other older relative in the household.

“Balancing personal financial priorities with the added demands of dependent care is likely to have implications on decision-making,” Barsch says.

Notably, Gen X is not blind to the realities of its financial condition. Two thirds (66%) of Gen X respondents acknowledge that their financial planning needs improvement and less than 1 in 10 (9%) consider their generation "very financially responsible." Moreover, when asked how they would allocate a $10,000 windfall, Gen X, more than other generations, opted for debt repayment—suggesting an interest in tackling financial challenges.

But interest in tackling a problem doesn’t always mean success, the study concludes. Despite citing “insufficient savings to retire comfortably” as a leading financial fear, one third of Gen Xers (34%) do not know how much income they need to retire and nearly half (47%) have not discussed retirement planning with anyone. Gen X is also less likely than any other generation, even Millennials, to have sought guidance from an adviser.   

“The good news is that Gen X is in its earning prime and has a relatively long runway to retirement,” Barsch adds. “Overcoming perceived barriers and inertia in order to develop a strategy today can vastly improve the outlook for tomorrow.”