Laurence Dutton—Getty Images
By Dan Kadlec
October 31, 2014

What a difference a bull market makes. The Dow Jones industrial average is up 160% from its financial crisis low, and the latest research shows that young people are beginning to think that stocks might not be so ill advised after all.

Nearly half of older millennials (ages 25-36) say they are more interested in owning stocks than they were five years ago, according to a Global Investor Pulse survey from asset manager BlackRock. This may signal an important turnaround. Earlier research has shown that millennials, while good savers, have tended to view stocks as too risky.

In July, Bankrate.com found that workers under 30 are more likely than any other age group to choose cash as their favorite long-term investment, and that 39% say cash is the best place to keep money they won’t need for at least 10 years. In January, the UBS Investor Watch report concluded that millennials are “the most fiscally conservative generation since the Great Depression,” with the typical investment portfolio holding 52% in cash—double the cash held by the average investor.

This conservative nature has raised alarms among financial planners and policymakers. Cash holdings, especially in such a low-rate environment, have no hope of growing into a suitable retirement nest egg. In fact, cash accounts have been yielding less, often far less, than 1% the past five years and have produced a negative rate of return after factoring in inflation.

Conservative millennials, with 40 years or more to weather the stock market’s ups and downs, have been losing money by playing it safe while the stock market has turned $10,000 into $26,000 in less than six years. Yes, the market plunged before that. But in the last century a diversified basket of stocks including dividends has never lost money over a 20-year period—and often the gains have been more than 10% or 12% a year.

Millennials are giving stocks a look for a number of reasons:

  • The market rebound. The market plunge was scary. Millennials may have seen their parents lose a third of their net worth or more. But with few assets at the time, the market drop didn’t really hurt their own portfolio, and stocks’ sharp and relentless rise the past six years is their new context.
  • Saver’s mentality. Millennials struggle with student loans and other debts, but they are dedicated savers. They have seen first-hand how little their savings grow in low-yielding investments and they better understand that they need higher returns to offset the long-term erosion of pension benefits.
  • Optimism still reigns. Millennials are easily our most optimistic generation. At some level, a rising stock market simply suits their worldview.

This last point shows up in many polls, including the BlackRock survey. Only 24% of Americans believe the economy is improving—a share that rises to 32% looking just at millennials, BlackRock found. Likewise, millennials are more confident in the job market: 32% say it is improving, vs. 27% of Americans overall. Millennials are also more likely to say saving enough to retire is possible: only 37% say that saving while paying bills is “very hard,” vs. 43% of the overall population.

Looking at the stock market, 45% of millennials say they are more interested than they were five years ago. That compares with just 16% of boomers. Millennials also seem more engaged: They spend about seven hours a month reviewing their investments, vs. about four hours for boomers.

This is all great news. Millennials will need the superior long-term return of stocks to reach retirement security. Yet many of them are just coming around to this idea now, having missed most of the bull market. In the near term, they risk being late to the party and buying just ahead of another market downdraft. If that happens, they need to keep in mind that the market will rebound again, as it did out of the mouth of the Great Recession. They have many decades to wait out any slumps. They just need to commit and stay with a regular investment regimen.

Read next:

Schwab’s Pitch to Millennials: Talk to (Robot) Chuck
Millennials Are Flocking to 401(k)s in Record Numbers
Millennials Should Love It When Stocks Dive

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