How Millennials Could Save the Economy

Maybe they've learned from what they've seen

by Dan Celia | Updated 22 Aug 2016 at 7:02 AM

Young people take a lot of heat for a lot of things. But it’s time to acknowledge that millennials may hold the power to help our economy — and themselves — in ways we did not anticipate in years past.

Let’s recognize, first, that baby boomers who control most of the nation’s wealth have seen their 401(k)s and IRAs fluctuate over the past several decades. Their balance sheets rose temporarily — only to sink back down before later recovering.

The millennials who have gained wisdom in recent years are becoming savers as they curb some of their desires for instant gratification.

Boomers watched this happen four or five times, but the bust of 2008-09 was much different. Closer to retirement by then, middle-aged people were no longer willing to risk putting all of their money into the stock market. They didn’t want to see a drop that could outlast their retirement years before the next rebound arrived.

After all, this was money they needed to live on — boomers are conscientious about preserving capital. This downturn in spending in turn led to a lack of confidence in the markets — or at the very least a reluctant attitude about getting involved. Now, millions are looking for alternatives to equities and aggressive growth stocks to increase the size of their portfolios.

The greatest asset any of us have, at any age, is our ability to earn an income. When that asset begins to fade in our senior years, we need to focus on the preservation of what we’ve set aside.

Related: We Need to Work for What We Have

Good investors obviously still have some exposure to the markets — 30 to 40 percent. However, that is a far cry from the 90 to 97 percent that would make a significant impact on the economy. Adding to this:

  • wages have steadily decreased for the last 10 years;
  • health care costs have continued to outpace inflation, coupled with uncertainty over whether these increases will ever stop;
  • food costs continue to rise; and
  • lower energy costs fail to offset the negatives of other prices rising and lower wages.

In such a bleak scenario, the Federal Reserve has few alternatives to creating more “false positives.” Its feeble attempts to generate a so-called wealth effect have failed miserably.

Saving for a Rainy Day?
In the past, only sophisticated investors recognized the impacts of corporate America’s lack of spending money, of balance sheet manipulation, or of federal financial engineering. Today, even average investors can grasp the fact that the actions of central banks around the world do not dramatically impact our financial well-being.

As a result, many of us have become hoarders. We’re doing what once was unthinkable for government. We’re saving money to buy things we need, not just things we want — and giving serious consideration to the size of the house that we need as opposed to what we want.

Indeed, I would say that most American and global consumers have gotten their wants fixed. We seem to be far more driven to acquire things that are necessary to sustain our daily activities of living — as opposed to making ourselves feel better while running up credit card debts and spending money we don't have.

But today there's one other crucial factor. The millennial generation is assimilating key lessons from our current economic realities.

The Millennial Power
After all, if anything will have an impact on skyrocketing college costs, it will be millennials choosing to rely on community college, internet classes, and other alternatives. You can now obtain a degree from Harvard online.

I have this lovely vision of white elephant universities' overbuilt facilities standing empty when they can no longer build and operate on the backs of young people.

Related: Millennials (Gasp!) Focus on Jobs, Cars, Money

This new phenomenon has been the real "double whammy" on the economy. Not only are boomers not spending — the government is unable to do anything to incentivize spending. The millennials who have gained wisdom in recent years aren't spending either, becoming savers as they curb some of their desires for instant gratification.

While painful in the short term, someday this will be healthy for their families and for the American economy. More than anything else, it has the incredible potential to change America in a positive way for future generations.

The only question is whether millennials will possess the discipline to maintain their prudent habits and outlook when we begin to see a true turnaround in our economy.

Dan Celia is president and CEO of Financial Issues Stewardship Ministries, Inc., and host of the national syndicated radio talk program "Financial Issues," heard daily on more than 600 stations across the country. 

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