There’s a large company in my downtown building that employs hundreds of young people in their 20s. If three of them get onto the elevator, they’re instantly checking their phones, not interacting with one another in any way. About a month ago, I began asking them on the elevator ride, “Where do you see yourself when you’re 40?”
I always get one of two answers. One is, “I see myself working totally for myself.” But there’s rarely an idea of what that enterprise might be. It’s just a vague answer, not even really a dream in most cases. The second answer is, “Where do I see myself when I’m 40? I don’t even know where I’m going to be next week.”
The good news is that the next several decades will see the largest transference of wealth—from the boomers to the younger population—of any in American history. The bad news is that there is enormous financial illiteracy among the millions who stand to inherit this wealth.
Since it’s resolution time, and some of these resolutions may involve your money, I thought I’d share a few ideas for building long-term net worth. First, don’t be a headline reader. The daily news, in my view, will be horrible every day for the rest of your lives. But for most of you, this bad news will have nothing to do with your lives or your careers. Screen it out. The phrase “don’t be a headline reader” came to me not from some economist preaching from on high, but from an ironworker who worked steel 30 and 40 stories above ground. He was a voracious reader, admiring writers from Boston’s George V. Higgins to Robert B. Parker. He knew about real life, not just theories and formulas created in college labs or by economists.
Along these lines, underscore for yourselves the emotional content behind the movements of stock markets. During the last several years, stock markets, particularly in the United States, have soared—but many people, looking in the rearview mirror with eyes on the meltdown in ’08 through ’09, remain deeply distrustful of the markets. There is nearly a generation of people who think nothing can ever be good again, and there is still some $2.7 trillion in money-market funds earning practically zero returns. Even Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, now admits that he hadn’t realized how much emotions factored into the magnitude of the fall.
Over three months last summer, I dined or drank and caroused with dozens of people, all across the economic spectrum. Not one of them mentioned the stock market to me. So markets are not a hot topic. In my opinion, anxiety still rules and greed is dormant. As long as this mood is dominant, I want to be invested still in the great global brands with rock-solid financial strength. And if I see markets moving lower for whatever reason the headlines trumpet, I will be a buyer.
If you are under 50 years old, please contribute to your retirement plans. Find a way to put something away for your future, even if it is in small amounts now. And go for growth, not into bonds. Invest in mutual funds, or invest in exchange-traded funds that emphasize blue-chip growth, that specialize in sectors with an out-of-favor contrarian bias or that specialize in specific sectors you feel have future promise.
In any market climate, there are always thriving areas. The same is true in your own lives. Believe in yourselves and keep putting it out there. We all long for the F word: freedom, in a financial sense. Take the long view and keep putting savings to work, particularly when times are fearful. And don’t be a headline reader.
But if I’m an optimist about markets in 2014, when would I sell and take some money off the table? I would do it if there were signs that greed was rearing its ugly head. I would do it when the phones were ringing off the hook with people saying, “I can’t wait to get into the stock market.” No one is saying that to me. When they do, and markets become the game of the day, then I’ll start being cautious and, again, a contrarian.
I think we are a long way from that.