Patpitchaya—Shutterstock
By Dan Kadlec
October 22, 2015

Older boomers and younger boomers are vastly different in many respects, and the divide shows up in their savings habits as much as anywhere, new research shows.

Among all boomers still working, the younger cohort started saving earlier and is far better prepared for retirement, according to a report from Wells Fargo. Younger boomers are far less likely to say they will have to work to age 70 or beyond.

Specifically, working Americans age 60-plus started saving for retirement at an average age of 37 and now have median savings of $50,000, the report found. Working Americans ages 55 to 59 started saving for retirement at an average age of 31 and have median savings three times greater—$150,000.

The difference, in this case, might have something to do with the nature of these statistics, which do not account for Americans past the age of 60 who are no longer working, presumably because they managed to save enough. Yet other studies echo the findings. Gallup found that workers closest to age 65 are the most likely to say they will work beyond that age, reflecting poorer savings and perhaps a more sober assessment of the costs of retirement as well.

The intra-generational split on savings habits occurs pretty much at the same age where old and young boomers see, well, just about everything through a different lens. Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. Age 60 is the breakpoint between the oldest and youngest of this generation.

Old boomers often feel that a young man who was never at risk of being drafted into the Vietnam War can’t really be called a boomer. The war and campus protests of that age defined young adulthood for folks now 60 or older. The draft lottery ended in January 1973, when today’s 60-year-olds were just leaving high school and became the last group eligible for conscription.

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Old boomers came of age in a bustling post-war economy ripe with promise and prosperity while young boomers, often called “trailing edge,” had a far different experience. The MetLife Mature Market Institute found that 1979 marks the year when the generation of “youthful enthusiasm” gave way to the “new realism” as the economy and our national stature weakened. In that year people who are now past age 60 were well on their way while those under 60 were just getting started.

All of this (along with the advent of the 401(k) plan, demise of the social safety net, and heightened financial awareness in general) has helped lead younger boomers to take saving more seriously—and the lesson is clear. Starting early and saving consistently brings results.

Across all age groups in the Wells Fargo survey, 46% said they have saved consistently since the day they started work. Those in this group and still at work have median retirement savings of $160,000, compared to $60,000 for those who did not save consistently. History is on their side. Half of retired Americans who were not consistent savers say their standard of living went down in retirement, compared to just 28% of retired Americans who saved consistently.

It is difficult to think of any broad section of boomers as being good with money. This has long been a group that loves credit cards and consumption. What seems to have been their financial salvation is a generally stable and growing economy that led to wage and investment gains over a long period. Then again, don’t try to paint all boomers with the same brush—especially those over and under age 60.

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