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Retirement May Be Mission Impossible for Gen X

As kids, they sat on gas lines in the backs of their parents’ cars. As young adults, they saw the stock market crash, and when it finally came time to settle down, they bought a house at the peak of the housing bubble and then were faced with the worst economy since the Great Depression. It’s no shock that Generation X — those born from 1965 to 1981 — may get short changed in their golden years.

Though they’ve watched parents and grandparents nestled with pensions, Social Security and strong economic growth, these are no longer guarantees. On the other hand, longer life spans with more medical bills and greater need for cash are the reality for many.

Gen X is the first generation to deal with the fact that the models of American retirement are changing — and its members are flustered. The generation once called “slackers” has been true to form with retirement planning.

“Gen X is a transition generation,” says Carol O’Rourke, a certified financial planner and Executive Director for the Coalition for Debtor Education in New York City. “Gen Xers were young during the tech bubble, and when they came of age, housing was a lot more expensive. With all the talk about whether Social Security is going to survive, there is a sense of not having something to look forward to.”

According to a 2012 Insured Retirement Institute , IRI, report, only one-third of Gen Xers are "very confident" about having enough money to live comfortably during retirement, cover their medical expenses, and pay for their children’s higher education.

Just 41 percent of the group have tried to figure out how much money they will ultimately need to save for retirement, and among those who have saved, half have amassed less than $100,000.

“Even though they have a longer time horizon toward retirement, there has been a tremendous emotional impact on their confidence in the future. What are they going to do to be sure that they have enough?” adds Cathy Weatherford, IRI president and CEO.

Along the same lines, a November 2011 report from the Guardian Life Insurance Company of found 82 percent of Xers believe the economy is headed in the wrong direction.

Skepticism is one of the defining X characteristics, says Robert Wendover, managing director at the Center for Generational Studies in Littleton, Colo.

“Many of the institutions that they were taught as children didn’t play out, whether it was political or social or economic. They just kind of unraveled for a variety of reasons,” says Wendover.

With the complexity of financial products on the market, Xers are not investing like other generations because they can’t find advice, say experts.

O’Rourke points out that, “while you used to be able to start small, private banks these days are looking for large clients and you need something like $250,000 to open an account.” Though Xers might be comfortable with online banking, they're not the type to invest in the Internet.

Gen Xers have been burned and are more hesitant, agrees Shalyn Courtenay, a Senior Associate at a Cambium, a full service financial advisory firm in Purchase, NY. In some cases, Courtenay encourages clients to put money in the stock market, but frequently suggests annuity products and cash value whole life insurance that provide guarantees.

The IRI study also revealed that during the recession, 15 percent of Xers made early withdrawals from their 401(k) plans, 23 percent stopped contributing to their retirement accounts, and 22 percent stopped contributing to college savings plans.

“The leakage out of their 401(k)s to meet current needs is what is most worrisome,” adds Weatherford.