Back in 2008 McKinsey Global Institute released a study that caused The Wall Street Journal to run a headline declaring, “Spendthrift Boomers Face Perilous Retirement.”
The report found that early boomers (born 1945 to 1954) had a savings rate of 20%; late boomers (born 1955 to 1964), had a savings rate of 10%. By comparison, the “silent” generation (born 1925 to 1944) saw their savings rate rise from 15% in their early 20s to roughly 30% in their late 40s.
McKinsey blamed the lack of savings on the “wealth effect” from asset appreciation and increased access to credit. Basically, the boomers are carrying too much debt and according to the report, two-thirds of them are unprepared for retirement. From McKinsey’s view, this means being unable to sustain 80% of their spending as they age.
In February 2009, a study released by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research projected the losses for baby boomers caused by the downturns in both the housing and stock markets up until that point. The report, called “The Wealth of the Baby Boom Cohorts After the Collapse of the Housing Bubble,” painted a dire picture. Among its findings: The median household with a person between the ages of 55 and 64 saw its net worth fall by almost 50% between 2004 and 2009, from $315,400 in 2004 to $159,800 in 2009. The study concluded that the loss of wealth due to the stock market dive and the bursting of the housing bubble will cause boomers to be more dependent on government insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare than previous generations.
“[The collapse of the housing market is] going to be huge,” said Dean Baker, an economist at CEPR who co-authored the study with fellow economist David Rosnick. “Basically most people had almost nothing other than their home and they were banking on the equity staying there, and in most cases for the home to keep rising in value. And that clearly has not happened. So you’re looking at a situation where the vast majority of baby boomers have very little wealth.”
The study from Baker and Rosnick also concluded that because of the bubble-inflated values of their homes, “tens of millions of families” opted not to save between 2004 and 2009 during what is typically the peak savings years for Americans. (People between the ages of 45 to 54 in 2009 were between the ages of 40 to 49 during this time period). The reverberations from the collapse of the housing bubble are being felt across the wealth spectrum, according to Baker.
Of course, we have seen many other studies like this these over the past couple of years. The boomers have gained the reputation has being a collection of entitled spenders who bought what they wanted, when they wanted. They are being forced to delay retirement because they bought big houses, bought expensive cars, took exotic vacations, blew their money in the stock market and lived in a general state of arrested development.
So how much of this is really true?
Sure, every generation will have its spendthrifts. Every generation will have those that don’t plan for retirement. But are baby boomers really proving to be more unprepared for retirement than other generations? If studies like those from McKinsey and the CEPR are to be believed, than yes.
But not everyone is buying it.
Bill Kelly, founder and president of Kelly Financial Services in Braintree, Mass., says that he has actually found himself telling boomer clients to spend money. If a client hasn’t taken a trip in five years he will tell them to take a trip. His boomer client base does not sound like a group of freewheeling spenders with a reckless lack of retirement planning. They are actually very conservative and family-oriented, Kelly said. In fact, he said the much-reported savings problem in this country has perhaps been overstated.
“There’s a record number of money going into the 401(k) system right now,” he said. “There’s so much money in money markets right now, it’s astronomical considering what we’ve been through. I would say this is a country of savers but they don’t get a lot of publicity.”
The truth is that when you’re talking about 76 million people, it’s almost impossible to paint a defining characteristic with a broad stroke. The baby boomers are not a generation of reckless spenders or a generation of underrated savers. They’re both. For many, their savings habits have been changed over the past couple of years. It’s been like that for a lot of us. And it’s not that the boomer’s reputation for having spent too much during two massive market bubbles is necessarily wrong, it’s just that it’s not true of all of them.
“The people I work with are squares,” Kelly said.