When it comes to preparing for retirement, there's one generation that appears to be falling far behind.
It's not the millennial generation, despite their struggles to find employment in an uncertain economy while juggling student loans, nor is it the Baby Boomers. Instead, those apparently most at risk for an underfunded retirement are members of Generation X, or adults who are now between 35 to 49 years old. For Gen Xers, it turns out that reality really does bite.
This group not only has the poorest financial habits out of America's four generational cohorts, but it's struggling with the costs of raising young children and caring for elderly parents, according to a study from Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, which surveyed more than 5,400 Americans. When Gen Xers came of age, they had the reputation of being slackers, thanks to movies like "Reality Bites" and grunge bands such as Nirvana, but their fortunes were shaped more by successive economic downturns and quirks of the retirement system.
This generation started working in the early 1990s, just as the U.S. economy fell into a recession. Then, as many were buying homes and building their careers, the dot-com bubble burst, sending stock valuations down and creating a shock-wave throughout many industries. During the Great Recession, Gen Xers were the hardest hit, losing almost half their wealth, more than any other generation, according to a 2014 report from The Pew Charitable Trusts.
At the same time, when Gen Xers started working, the employer-based retirement system was largely built on the idea that workers needed to "opt in" to 401(k) plans. That meant that Gen Xers needed to take the extra step of enrolling in a 401(k) to start saving.
In recent decades, companies have largely shifted to an "opt out" strategy, after behavioral research showed that workers were more likely to participate if they were automatically enrolled. Fidelity, for one, has found that plans with automatic enrollment have a participation rate of 84 percent, compared with 53 percent without. That means that many Gen Xers likely started saving for retirement later than other generations.
Millennials, even though they have their own struggles, have better savings habits than Gen Xers. The Northwestern study found that they are conservative, risk-averse and optimistic they'll meet their financial goals.
It's not only recessions and opt-in plans that put Gen Xers behind, however: the group is more likely to describe themselves as spenders rather than savers. While 33 percent of all Americans describe themselves as spenders, that jumps to 41 percent for Generation X, Northwestern found.
Not surprisingly, members of Generation X are more likely to say they have more debt than savings, with almost four out of 10 describing themselves in that situation. Across all generations, only three out of 10 Americans say they have more debt than savings.
Of course, Generation X has a lot on its hands: many are raising young children while juggling mortgages and student loans, as well as taking care of older parents.
"Life stage is a huge factor in Gen X's financial preparedness," Rebekah Barsch, vice president of planning and sales at Northwestern, emailed. "Gen X is in the sweet spot for the 'sandwich generation,' or the portion of Americans balancing personal financial priorities and with dependent care for both young children and aging parents."
Four out of 10 Gen Xers live with children under 18, while a quarter have a parent or another relative living in their households, Barsch added. She noted, "So, in some respects, it's not surprising that this generation is feeling squeezed and unprepared."
Barsch has some advice for members of Generation X who are feeling unprepared for retirement: create a plan for getting on a better financial footing. (Northwestern sells financial products and planning to consumers.) She noted, "We can't stress enough how important it is to engage with a financial professional who can assess where you are, where you want to be, and who can devise a plan to get you there."