By ANNA PRIOR
It's a typical Wednesday at the trendy Jet hotel in downtown Denver, where the city's young and hip professionals gather in full force. Only at this to-do, one group doesn't quite fit in: financial planners. They ask impersonal questions, immediately pitch their services and inundate their prey with business cards, says event organizer Jon Severson.
After years of shying away from the Pearl Jam listening, Nintendo-playing set, the financial industry is beginning to take notice of Generations X and Y. And who could blame it? People between the ages of 18 and 45 are sitting on a lot of money -- as much as $12 trillion in investable assets, according to Phoenix Marketing, a research firm -- so it's not surprising that advisers are rolling out cocktail hours, baseball games and snarky tweets to woo them. Except in many cases, it doesn't seem to be working (if by working, one means gaining their trust). According to recent studies, nearly 30 percent of wealthy young investors choose not to use a financial adviser; of those, about 40 percent say they can get better returns on their own. Even more surprising, nearly 60 percent describe their investing style as conservative, a stance counter to what most advisers would suggest for investors in that stage of life. "I know they're trying to target my age group, but they are failing miserably and it's laughable," says Gretel Going, a 32-year-old partner of a New York marketing firm, describing a few of the broker ads she sees on TV.
No doubt some advisers are finding ways to connect with young people, but recent history is working against the investment-advice industry. Many 20- and 30-somethings, after all, have witnessed the dot-com bubble burst, the real estate market implosion, the Great Recession and, of course, the recent market free fall. Plus, it turns out that the oft-touted tool for reaching tech-savvy young investors -- social media -- is trickier to use than it looks. For one thing, advisers are limited by a host of regulations regarding what they can post on Twitter and Facebook. What's more, advisers say, it's easy to turn off potential clients with inadvertently patronizing or tone-deaf tweets; ahem -- that's why it's called a generation gap.
But plenty of blame still rests with the financial industry, say experts. Todd Kilbaugh, a 38-year-old pediatric critical care physician in Philadelphia, says he consistently felt like a small fry when he was looking for an adviser. "I didn't have enough money for them to care," he says. Indeed, many financial advisers admit that 50-year-olds with $1 million are still more important to them. Advisers also like to preach stock buying, but after many young people watched how the profession failed to help their parents during the financial crisis, many have become financially archconservative. Yet more damning for the industry: There's data suggesting that these investors are better off without an adviser. Self-directed Gen X investors saw their assets grow 28 percent from 2009 to 2010, compared with just 3 percent for those with advisers, according to Cogent Research.
Despite all this, experts say there's still a lesson to be learned by both conservatively investing young'uns and the unhip advisory community. Generation Xers have been avoiding stocks, but equities are still one of the best ways to battle inflation, says Stuart Ritter, a vice president at T. Rowe Price Investment Services. Investors just need to adjust their expectations and look for a yearly return from their portfolio averaging 7 percent over the long run. And on the flip side, pros say, advisers can do more to connect with the younger generation. Tone down the product pitches, adapt a fee structure that will attract a less affluent audience, and try to integrate yourself more naturally into a client's life, says Ted Jenkin, an Atlanta-based adviser who caters specifically to this demographic. "They don't want a pitch that someone can beat the S&P 500," says Jenkin. "Their whole life, they haven't seen it."