The millennial generation seems to have little faith that a “social safety net” will be there to catch them in their senior years. In fact, Social Security disadvantages are a pretty distant difficulty compared to the more pressing financial concerns of millennials.

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More than half of millennials surveyed said Social Security was unlikely to exist at all by the time they reach full retirement age, with only 45 percent believing the program will still be there when they need it. Even among those who think Social Security will survive over the next 40 to 50 years, few believe the program will provide the benefits it pays to current retirees. Only about a third of millennials think they’ll receive the same benefits Social Security pays now, while 64 percent express a lack of confidence about future payout levels.

Millennials aren’t alone in their doubts about the financial viability of the Social Security system over the long run, with the most recent Social Security Trustees Report admitting that the program has less than 20 years left, in which recipients can expect full benefits when they retire.

Absence of Social Security complicated by student debt

With little expectation that Social Security will be any help — at what age will millennials be able to retire? A recent study examined that question by reviewing the typical financial profile of a college graduate, heavily burdened as most are with student loan debt.

As more students attend college at a cost higher than ever before, millennials have increasingly turned to loans to help finance their education. In the past 30 years, college tuition has soared more than 200 percent. To pay for it, students have assumed loan debt approaching $1 trillion. Aside from the immediate issues like employment and repayment this has posed, an even greater challenge for millennials will be retirement.

Student debt will balloon before retirement

For most of today’s college graduates, a realistic retirement age will be somewhere in their mid-70s. Although the typical college graduate leaves school with a seemingly manageable $23,300 debt load, 7 percent of a student’s earnings go toward yearly loan payments of $2,858 for the first ten years of his or her career. This prevents any meaningful contributions toward retirement.

In fact, by the age of 33, when the typical college graduate has finally paid off their standard 10-year loans, he/she can only be expected to have saved $2,466 for retirement — $30,000 less than if the student had graduated with no debt. Even worse, that savings would have been earning a compounded rate of return every year until retirement. At the projected retirement age of 73, the lost savings directly attributable to student debt is $115,000, some 30 percent of total retirement savings.

A strategy to bridge the gap

An increasing retirement age appears to be inevitable, but a financial and career planning strategy can go a long way toward achieving reasonable retirement objectives. There are many factors that influence the ultimate age at which people are able to retire, but there are a few variables that have a particularly large impact.

Making above-average yearly contributions to a retirement account, working for an organization with a decent 401(k) match, and making sure to invest money in index tracking mutual funds are among the ways to retire relatively early.

401(k) employer match

Millennials will have to depend upon the employer match in their 401(k) plans to save for retirement. According to a recent survey, the current median yearly matching contribution is $3,500. These employer contributions are expected to make up roughly 50 percent of the retirement equation for millennials. Working for a generous employer can do wonders for retirement — one that offers a yearly matching contribution of $1,000 more than the median will reduce their expected retirement age potential by up to three years.

Retirement account contributions

Another important component of retirement planning is the yearly contribution rate. Making above-average contributions can significantly improve retirement outcomes. Increasing the personal savings rate to 10 percent, from the average 6 percent annual post-tax contribution, reduces the expected age of retirement from 73 to 69.

Index fund investments

If interest rates remain low, millennials will have to take some risk and build an equity-oriented portfolio. Contributing money towards retirement won’t be helpful if it’s simply left in a savings account or a CD. To achieve a 6 percent yearly return on investments, some exposure to equities is necessary. The best way to minimize the risk is by investing in index-tracking mutual funds, which will offer a market return with low fees.

The importance of contributing early

Retirement prospects for a student who finds a good-paying job at graduation are significantly better than for others. With a reduced debt load and a job that pays some 25 percent above average, this graduate can expect to retire in their late 60s. Compared to other graduates, the employed graduate who can contribute an extra $40,000 plus to retirement savings during the first 10 years of his/her career can make a difference approaching $500,000 in savings by their early 70s. It’s a good example of the importance of contributing early in one’s career to a retirement plan.

Retirement will be difficult, not hopeless

Millennials will have to rely upon proactive financial management to achieve their retirement goals. The combination of Social Security disadvantages, decline of pension plans, and the challenge of college debt are unique to the millennial generation — and place the responsibility for retirement squarely on their shoulders. Most will have to wait until their early- to mid-70s to retire — more than 10 years later than the current average retirement age.

There is another variable to this equation, however, which is evolving life expectancy. In the nearly half-century before the millennial generation will begin retiring, we can expect advances in medical science and increased awareness of healthy living that will advance longevity at least as much as we’ve seen in the past half-century. So, while millennials may face a decade’s delay in their retirement, they may also find they’ll be living at least that much longer than today’s retirees.

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