It's Personal: Data confirm Generation X is the most fearful of retirement

Rich Morin did a virtual double take, and so should you. Because what he and a colleague at Pew Research Center discovered about wealth and retirement is what I've been sounding alarms over for three years, a lone wolf in a media and political pack that blissfully ignores this scary reality.

Hard data are starting to pile up, most recently in a new report by Pew, that the most financially fragile group in America doesn't include Grandma or that guy in his early 60s or even the twentysomethings who entered the workforce during a doozy of a recession.

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MICHAEL JUNG / © iStockphoto.com

No, the group with the greatest, grounded fear of poverty at retirement, and the one that experienced the greatest wealth decline over the last decade, is Generation X: young moms and dads, up-to-their-eyeballs-in-inflated-mortgages homeowners, professionals or blue-collar workers in their 30s and 40s, going nowhere at lightning speed.

They are, according to a Pew analysis released a few days ago, the group more in fear of a bankrupt old age than any other. The group most ravaged by the economic quake that wiped out 401(k)s, housing equity, and income growth over the last decade.

"They're in a very vulnerable place," Morin said Friday, as we discussed the findings that adults in their late 30s and early 40s are most concerned about retirement - the magnitude of their worry far oustripping, by proportion, that of Baby Boomers, newly minted adults, even octogenarians.

"It's a fragile group," he said.

The headline on one of many troubling charts summed it up: "Oldest, Youngest Most Confident They Can Afford Retirement."

Revelations in its July survey were so stark, Morin said, that Pew will further study this group, whose economic malaise has been given short shrift by researchers and policymakers obsessed with more numerous and politically influential older Americans.

Even twentysomething Millennials, Morin said, seem to garner more attention than those born (roughly) between 1966 and 1980.

"Generation X seems to be lost in the shuffle," Morin said. "It's good that writers like you are focusing on this group.

"It obviously has got our attention," added the senior editor at Washington-based Pew.

The awakening struck Morin as he scoured answers to questions about retirement security and other middle-class issues in a July survey of 2,508 adults. Pew had asked similar questions about retirement in 2009 and 2011 surveys.

Morin said he initially probed this year's data expecting they would show Boomers to be the most insecure about retirement.

After all, in Pew's 2009 survey, with the crash of '08 still fresh, adults 45 to 54 were the most insecure, with 33 percent "not too" or "not at all confident" that they would outlive their income and assets. Only 20 percent of Gen Xers, ages 35 to 44, were as fearful.

This year, however, a whopping 49 percent of all adults 35 to 44 were petrified (my word) of being broke when they're old. Next in line: people 45 to 54, at 43 percent.

"It jumped out at me," Morin said. "The breadth of that change was just so large that it commanded some additional work."

His next move was to check similar questions posed in 2011. There, too, he saw the spike. "We missed the story a year ago," Morin said.

Meanwhile, co-author Richard Fry was analyzing June data from the Federal Reserve Board's Survey of Consumer Finances that showed something else: The median wealth of adults ages 35 to 44 was 56 percent lower in 2010 than it had been for people that age a decade earlier, in 2001.

Gen X's wealth loss was "the steepest decline for any age group during that decade and more than double the rate of loss among those ages 55 to 64 (22%)," the Pew authors said.

I wrote about this stunning statistic at the time, as it seemed no one else had. Pew's analysis merely confirms the one-two punch to mid-career Americans, starting with retirement-security findings

"We said, 'This is big,' " Morin said. "Then, Rick Fry looked at wealth data, and all the pieces fell into place."

None of this should be news to Inquirer readers, who have seen my columns on this topic since late 2009. And no longer can anyone deny that it's a fact.

Gen X adults formed households during the unprecedented bubble in real estate prices, buying overpriced homes in larger numbers than their predecessors. And they have disproportionately lost equity as those homes have lost value, leaving huge mortgages still to be paid. Pew also noted that Xers experienced fewer benefits of stock ownership, and that their incomes stopped growing.

Politicians happily offer to cut planned retirement benefits for this very group, preferring to pander to older voters and their fears.

But to dispose of an entire generation is unconscionable. This is a crisis worthy of national attention. Once and for all.

 


Contact Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com or @panaritism on Twitter. Previous columns are at philly.com/mariap.