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Financial services industry throwing out rule book to attract millennials

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

May 2, 2016


MINNEAPOLIS — Enough already with the stereotyping of millennials living in their parents’ basement and drowning in college debt.

That may be true for some right now, but the 35-and-under crowd now makes up the majority of America’s labor force. It’s just a matter of time before they will be on their way toward financial independence — if they aren’t already.

The financial services industry, which has long been focused on serving well-heeled baby boomers, is waking up to the fact that millennials and their older brethren, the Generation Xers, represent a future gold mine.

Not only are young professionals heading into prime earning years, this next generation of potential investor stands to inherit an estimated $30 trillion in assets from their elders over the next three to four decades, partaking in the world’s largest generational transfer of wealth.

"How do we start to connect with the 25- to 45-year-old who doesn’t have the juicy million-dollar portfolio and the gray hair just yet, but really is going to be the lifeblood of our business five, 10 or 15 years down the road?" asked Matt Cosgriff, a 27-year-old millennial and financial adviser, who convinced his bosses at BerganKDV Wealth Management in suburban Minneapolis to let him develop a line of business tailored to young professionals.

At Lifewise, which Cosgriff launched in September, the approach is geared to a generation whose financial values, styles and needs are strikingly different from their parents and grandparents.

Busy young professionals don’t want lengthy face-to-face meetings in a glassy office. They are fine with a virtual online chat or using Web-based tools as a starting point and checking in via text or email, Cosgriff and others have found.

"Baby boomers are much more in tune with delegating to an adviser: You do it. We trust you," Cosgriff said. "Millennials are skeptical of financial services in general. They are skeptical of Wall Street, skeptical of big banks. Young people want to partner with someone they trust. They want to see some options and have a say in what’s going on."

Financial experts say millennials and Gen Xers will need to start saving much more aggressively than previous generations.

One recent report estimated that those now in their mid-30s will need about $1.8 million to enjoy a stress-free retirement, based on predicted rates of inflation and possible reductions in Social Security.

More of the responsibility will land on their shoulders than in previous generations. Precious few can count on a guaranteed pension, and more young people are earning money through the "gig" economy, relying on freelance jobs and short-term assignments. Even those with a 401(k) plan at their workplace must figure out how to manage among dozens of investment choices.

The time to engage this younger generation is now, urged a 2012 report by Pershing LLC aimed at investment professionals. Young people tend to be less satisfied with their current financial advisers, the report noted, and those who inherit wealth seldom keep assets with their parents’ investment professionals.

"The next generation trusts algorithms, logic, their peers," said Lisa Steffes, CEO of Brightpeak Financial, a new division of Thrivent Financial geared toward young investors. "They believe in simplicity, transparency. They want it to make sense and to know they can trust you. They’ve watched terrorism, they’ve watched their parents get screwed by the stock market or the job market. They’ve got all this information at their fingertips, but know that not all information is created equal."

Located in Minneapolis, Brightpeak launched in 2012 and initially sought to use a traditional face-to-face approach to reach millennials and Gen Xers. It didn’t work.

After retooling, Brightpeak relaunched last fall with a stronger online component and a website brimming with faces of young people and families reflecting diverse ethnicities and backgrounds. The company is working with about 7,500 young people, and within the next five years expects to do about 80 percent of its work through online tools and email, with phone conversations for support.

"They need guidance on their own terms — which does include, how do I get out of my student debt," said Steffes, a 54-year-old baby boomer and mother of a couple of millennials. "And they do like experiences, they do value dinner out, they do value travel. Good financial planners can figure out how to bring those values into the fold."

Cosgriff agreed that the old model of "invest, invest, invest" doesn’t resonate with his clients at this stage of their lives.

"For young professionals, the American dream looks very different. Boomers wanted a big house, to drive a nice car, live in the suburbs," he said. "Millennials are much more apt to want to be happy in their careers, even if it means making less money. They’re OK living in a smaller house. We help them get clear about what they want and build a plan around that."

The notion of "transparency" is key for this generation, he said.

The Lifewise website lists fees for services that vary from a one-time consult of $700 to more intensive planning ranging from $1,000 to $2,500, offered in a monthly subscription fee. He’s got a roster of almost a dozen clients, plus about 30 people have registered for some of the free online services.

"We think our prices are competitive, but millennials expect everything to be free," he said. "Gen Xers are apt to understand a professional service is going to cost you something."

David Keysser, 26, considers himself an outlier because even though he works on commission — which accounts for half of his annual income and means he must manage wide monthly swings in cash flow — he has started to save and invest, unlike many in his generation. He participates in his company’s matching 401(k) plan and is setting money aside to buy a condo.

Though he is confident living within a budget, Keysser turned to Cosgriff for advice on longer-term planning, meeting informally at a coffee shop.

"He’s about my age, so it was easy to relate to him," Keysser said. "Some people want a gray-haired guy in a nice suit. I’m OK meeting someone my age. At the end of the day, they’re all using the same tools, and investing in the market isn’t what it was 40 years ago."