Financial Advisers Don't Care About Millennials, and the Feeling Is Mutual

They prefer their clients old and rich—but that can’t last long

Photographer: Jacob Wackerhausen/Getty Images

The investment industry has an age discrimination problem, and millennials and Generation X are bearing the brunt of it. Only 30 percent of financial advisers are actively looking for clients under age 40, according to a survey of 500 advisers by the research firm Corporate Insight. 

Advisers prefer older clients for a simple reason: Most advisers get paid based on a percentage of the assets they manage. And typical households in their late 60s and early 70s are far richer than their children and grandchildren, with net worths that are five times that of a median 35- to 44-year-old household. These older baby boomers own 22 times more in assets than those under age 35, Federal Reserve data show.

Even if millennials and members of Generation X can find an adviser who will talk to them, they may well be better off on their own. If you have only $10,000—the median net worth of those under 35— it makes little sense to pay someone $300 an hour to manage it. 

Still, the investment industry can’t ignore younger clients forever. For one thing, retiring boomers are starting to spend down their nest eggs—making them less profitable for advisers year after year, says Corporate Insight’s Sean McDermott. 

Over time, more and more money will end up in the hands of millennials. And so far they don't see much point in professional finance advice. Only 29 percent of young workers have looked to professionals for advice, an IQuantifi survey last month showed. Meanwhile, 71 percent asked family members and 45 percent turned to friends.

While many advisers ignore people under 40, other investment firms are taking them very seriously. They see a business opportunity in winning over the younger Americans who are actually saving substantial sums. 

On May 5, for example, Vanguard Group expanded its “Personal Advisor” service to clients with more than $50,000 in assets. Previously restricted to clients with more than $100,000, the two-year-old service offers advice to clients via the Web and over the phone for 0.3 percent of assets per year, or $150 on a $50,000 portfolio. 

Vanguard’s move follows rapid growth by several new online investment advisers, often called robo-advisers, that charge similar fees for automated portfolios. Eleven startup companies,  including Betterment, FutureAdvisor, and Wealthfront, were advising clients on about $19 billion at the end of 2014, Corporate Insight estimates. That’s up 65 percent in the eight months from April to December. 

These firms can charge a fraction of the price of a human adviser because technology lets them be far more efficient. But low cost isn’t their only appeal, McDermott says. Younger clients also like their transparent fees and easy-to-use websites. In March, Charles Schwab Corp. launched its own robo-adviser service, Schwab Intelligent Portfolios.

Technology won’t entirely replace human advisers, says Elliott Weissbluth, chief executive officer of HighTower Advisors. But advisers—even ones like HighTower’s who specialize in wealthy clients—will need to find ways to incorporate technology and become more efficient, he says. Some big established players are making deals with the new startups. Fidelity Investments and TD Ameritrade have started partnerships with robo-advisers, and the insurance giant Northwestern Mutual bought online planner LearnVest in March.

Despite these trends, just 12 percent of financial advisers surveyed by Corporate Insight said they’re interested in incorporating a robo-adviser service into their business. In the investment industry, “things are going to change faster than people believe they’re going to change,” says Weissbluth. If advisory firms such as HighTower don’t adapt, he says, “We become dinosaurs.”

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