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Millennials and Money

They are savvy, independent, skeptical and far more conservative than some might think. An exclusive, in-depth look at the new investment generation gap.

In a survey conducted on behalf of Merrill Lynch's Private Banking and Investment Group, a new picture of the Millennial generation emerges that is almost perfectly at odds with their stereotypical depiction. By and large, the Millennials in our survey don't come across as entitled, disengaged from the real world or enthralled by instant gratification, and they aren't upending their parents' approach to investing. Instead, the data portray a group who are oriented toward the future, who have a strong sense of familial and social responsibility, and who not only wouldn't be against using their parents' advisors, but for the most part describe their strategy as "buy and hold."

What we have here is a classic mismatch between perception and reality. And it works both ways. Just as there are plenty of misconceptions about Millennials, today's young people, too, have their false impressions — about the wealth-management industry, the markets, and about the long-term consequences of their attitudes and behaviors regarding investing. Based on this new survey as well as extensive interaction with our young clients, Michael J. Liersch, Merrill Lynch's director of behavioral finance, has written a whitepaper that dispels the misconceptions on both sides of the communication gap. The highlights:

Millennials take absolutely nothing at face value.

Skepticism appears to exist in this generation's very DNA. When it comes to investing, many Millennials have decided to take the opposite of a no-questions-asked approach. Skepticism, of course, can be healthy. It can lead to vigilance, enterprise and a desire to get to the bottom of things. But it can also be a hindrance, limiting one's opportunities.

Millennials want to remain in the driver's seat when it comes to their investments.

More than 70% of respondents describe themselves as being "self-directed" in their investing. That could be because, as our survey indicates, Millennials have a hard time believing that advisors have their best interests in mind. Young people seem to equate financial advisors with salesmen. They seem to be unaware or unconvinced of the industry trend toward a model in which advisors' fees are tied to portfolio growth and not to how many trades they execute or products they sell.

Young inheritors want to be empowered to realize their own ambitions.

Many Millennials who have inherited wealth, or stand to do so, have anxieties around their role in the stewardship of the family wealth. In many instances, the parents of these young people are larger-than-life personalities who cast long generational shadows; their children worry about not living up to expectations. The older generation, in turn, often fears they may de-motivate their children by sharing too much information. The upshot is that a broad absence of communication between the generations can become a kind of chronic problem, extending year after year, with potentially dire financial consequences.

Millennials don't want their lives to revolve around money. No matter their background, young adults share a sense of entrepreneurship.

That innovative spirit can limit the amount of risk millenials are willing to take with their investments, and it tends to inform their sense of social responsibility. A pair of movements — one sometimes called "values-based investing" (VBI) and the other "impact philanthropy" — have gained traction among young people like no other generational segment of the population.

Providing connections to other authorities is of vital importance to young investors.

The results of our survey suggest that the ability to provide sound financial advice is just one of the things Millennials are looking for from advisors. What they are really seeking are connections. Whether it's meeting with commercial bankers to discuss a business loan, or an introduction to the director of an innovative nonprofit, members of this generation want to know that your network will help the Millennials may not yet expand and deepen their network.

Millennials may not yet fully appreciate the degree to which wealth management firms have evolved to meet their needs.

Investors weren't the only ones harmed, and influenced, by the financial crisis. The wealth-management industry, too, had to face up to some inherent problems and make changes. The result is that clients are more in control of the wealth management process than ever. Advisors must continue to carefully listen to young investors in order to gain a clear understanding of their anxieties and aspirations. Our survey results make clear that today's young adults are motivated to make wise and pragmatic decisions, especially if firms can help make sure their natural and often healthy skepticism doesn't ossify into the kind of conservatism that can expose investors to missed opportunities. An open mind, by both financial firms and Millennials, is the key to them finding common ground.


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