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Focus on the signal — not the noise — around millennials and Gen Z

Younger generations are more than a meme; they are the largest group of investors that advisors can no longer ignore

By Samir Vasavada

At times, reading stories about the investing habits of young people can feel like a game of buzzword bingo. Gamestop. TikTok. Stonks. Bitcoin. WallStreetBets. Dogecoin. 

But as a member of Gen Z and co-founder of a fintech company, it is frustrating to see such significant demographic changes reduced to cliches and an unhelpful narrative that young people are all irrational investors, completely different from older generations. 

Surface-level commentary obscures the important differences — and similarities — between generations. Put simply — it is hard to separate the signal from all the noise. Ultimately, this makes it more difficult for the financial services industry and financial advisors to understand and cater to younger generations. 

And the risks of getting Millennials and Gen Z wrong couldn’t be higher. These generations are too big and too important to misunderstand or reduce to stereotypes. Millennials are already the largest generation in America, and over the next 25 years, more than 45 million households will transfer more than $68 trillion in wealth between generations. Is it truly surprising that Millennials and Gen Z are skeptical of Wall Street and ‘traditional’ investing, given what they’ve seen? Already they’ve experienced two of the worst economic crises in history, seen Big Finance taken to task for irresponsible behavior, and seen their student debt rise to crippling levels while their wages have stagnated. A 2018 Federal Reserve study summarized it saying, “millennials are less well off than members of earlier generations when they were young, with lower earnings, fewer assets, and less wealth.” What’s more, new research from Credit Suisse reveals Gen Z can expect average returns of just 2% in the coming decades compared to 5% of past generations. 

If it also seems like the newer generations see the world in different ways, it is because in many ways they do. Millennials and Gen Z are the most racially and ethnically diverse, the best educated, and the most socially progressive according to studies from the Pew Research Center. They are buying products, choosing where to work, shaping their lives, and investing based on their values. 

The combination of mistrust of financial markets and the rise of new technologies has accelerated the adoption of new investment categories and trends, whether that is turning to Bitcoin instead of gold or trading through apps like Robinhood instead of traditional brokers. 

However, while there are real differences between generations, there are equally strong similarities too. Like previous generations, Millennials and Gen Z want to achieve similar goals including financial independence. Deloitte found that 74% of Millennials and 65% of Gen Z actively budget, and a majority have clear financial goals for the next five years. In response to the pandemic, close to a fifth of Millennials started saving more. Contrary to the stereotype, Millennials and Gen Z are five times more likely to trust a certified financial professional than a robo-advisor and believe that an advisor is easier and less intimidating than a robo-advisor to use. 

For the financial services industry** **and financial advisors, I believe there are three areas that they should focus on to better cater to Millennials and Gen Z. The first focus area is building trust. By delivering on promises and being transparent, companies and advisors can reduce skepticism and build trust over time. 

The second focus area must be technology. Millennials and Gen Z expect better, more seamless, and more intuitive digital experiences. You can’t continue to offer Blockbuster-like services to people who are used to Netflix. Particularly for advisors, better technology will allow them to spend less time on low-value tasks and spend more time on the things that matter, like strengthening existing relationships or reaching out to new clients. 

The final focus area is personalization. Millennials and Gen Z won’t accept the same one-size-fits-all portfolios of the past. Their demands for more personalization will further accelerate the unbundling of financial advice and products. New technologies enable advisors to create personalized portfolios at-scale, ensuring there is no trade-off between customization and growing a business. 

Appealing to and gaining the trust of Millennials and Gen Z is not an easy task, but it’s the only way companies and advisors can deliver better services and ultimately better outcomes for new clients. 

Samir Vasavada is the co-founder and CEO of Vise.

This piece originally appeared in Financial Advisor Magazine

May 11, 2021