“If we take a step back and think about engaging with and communicating effectively with plan participants, we have to meet them where they are. And to do that, we need to understand where they’ve been,” said Sue Walton, Senior Vice President and Senior Defined Contribution Strategist, Retirement Strategy Group, at Capital Group | American Funds. With the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, plan sponsors had to respond quickly to participants’ concerns about their retirement savings and offer information on CARES Act provisions that they adopted, she said, at Pensions & Investments’ DCW Fall Virtual Conference Series. Different generations responded differently to the market volatility following the pandemic outbreak, and plan sponsors can help participants by customizing plan messaging both in times of crisis and on an ongoing basis.
PLAN COMMUNICATION SHOULD MEET PARTICIPANTS WHERE THEY ARE
Walton shared data on the experience of four generations of Americans through market performance, as represented by S&P500 index returns, since 1980, at the session titled, ‘Lessons Learned in the Pandemic: Communicating Effectively During a Crisis.’ “The Baby Boomers certainly have a long history here and have benefitted financially from the markets. They’ve seen different market environments that have been strong and have pulled back and that, over the long term, have been quite positive for them,” she said. “When Gen Xers entered the market, they were already skeptical coming in and faced challenging markets early, which has led to them having low expectations around market performance. Gen Xers see the more recent bull market as more of a surprise than an expectation,” Walton noted.
“The contrast to that is the Millennials, coming into the market right after the 2008 dip. They have really experienced strong markets up until this time. And similarly for Gen Z, they’ve been in the marketplace for a relatively short time. While both these generations have relatively positive expectations, Gen Z, as a generation, tend to be more pragmatic,” Walton said.
Plan sponsors can look at these generational insights to explain participants’ expectations of the markets going forward, Walton added. The Capital Group 2020 Investor Generational Attitudes Study showed Millennials and Gen Z having relatively strong market expectations in January, and that positive perspective persisted, even with a bit of an uptick, in March.
Market expectations for the Boomers and Gen X have been realistic and stayed flat to slightly lower for the same period January to March, she noted. “As we’ve now seen an upturn in market performance in Q2, is it sustainable? It may not be, but we still need to manage from an expectations perspective and what’s been the experience of the generations,” she said.
“Who’s been impacted the most by the income hit from the coronavirus crisis this year?” Walton shared additional insights from the firm’s research, showing that 34% of Boomers and 29% of Gen X’s experienced an income hit. “The Boomers are already pretty established and those closest to retirement may be taking a pause and evaluating their own scenarios. They are more likely to have other assets outside the DC plan. Gen Xers are relatively established in their careers and they have different financial objectives,” she said.
The research showed 46% of Millennials experienced an income hit. “Millennials are hit the hardest and that will have an impact that we will need to engage on with financial wellness and investment insights,” said Walton, adding, “From Capital Group’s perspective, taking that generational lens gives us a little more insight in being as effective as possible in communicating with participants going forward. This perspective of generational behavior in a crisis period gives us some interesting framing as we plan ahead.”
Walton noted that the firm has continued to track generational responses through August. “We see that Boomers are starting to live again and are taking vacations, perhaps not to the same extent as pre-Covid. From an investment perspective, they are holding steady in terms of their savings. For Gen X as well, not much has changed. They have stayed locked down, and from a financial perspective, they are focused on paying down debt, managing for emergencies, and saving for retirement,” Walton said.
“It goes back to the generation that we should be keeping a close eye on: Millennials who are impacted most in the downturn from a revenue standpoint. While they have been focused on paying down debt, student debt and other debt, which is a huge financial burden, they need to be much more focused on emergency savings. Many of them don’t have rainy day savings. Not surprisingly, we’re seeing Millennials pulling back on other spending behaviors,” Walton said, noting that “Millennials will be a key focus as we re-engage everyone on what it means for retirement security across the generations.”
The more plan sponsors can understand about the generational make up and market experiences of their plan participants, the greater the likelihood of being successful in engaging with them to help achieve better retirement outcomes for participants, Walton said. “We have partnered with our clients on going back to that opportunity of ‘meeting the participants where they are.’ That is, creating customized experiences to drive better engagement, and using data to develop a persona to better understand the investor and his or her decision-making process in order to create relevant content and leverage the most appropriate avenues to get that information to participants.”
Plan sponsors should not make assumptions about the different generations, the roles they play in different organizations, what messages they prefer, and at what time they want to see those messages, Walton said. “Take the opportunity to study that data and then marry that with custom messaging, the right avenue, and the right timing for the messages,” she said, adding “In the virtual world, we can be much more effective in driving those messages forward when you use all that data. It will take us forward, post-crisis or no crisis, leading to better outcomes and better retirement security.”
In the current trifecta of uncertain economic growth, a challenged job market and the global pandemic, plan sponsors will need to determine how best to reign in those optimistic market expectations across the generations, Walton pointed out. “Keeping Millennials engaged will be the key,” she said. “While this is a challenging environment, it also presents an opportunity for sponsors to evaluate where they can get appropriate diversification going forward.”
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