For a generation between 22 and 32 years old, saving for retirement is one of the most important things they can do for their financial future-- at exactly the time they can’t afford to do it.

More than half of the so-called millennial generation, 54%, reported that debt was their “biggest financial concern currently,” in a recent Wells Fargo Retirement Survey. Large student loans, which had a total outstanding balance of over $1 trillion at the end of 2012, had taken their toll. Debt was reported as “overwhelming” by 42% of respondents, which was twice the rate of boomers who were also surveyed.

Millennials will say “’It’s either I’m going to pay down my debt, or I’m going to save, but I just don’t see my way clearly to do both,’” said Karen Wimbish, executive vice president and director of retail retirement at Wells Fargo, at a presentation on Wednesday. “That’s concerning because this generation, more-so than any other before them,  is going to be primarily if not solely responsible for whatever their retirement looks like.”

While 61% of millennials considered themselves “savers,” only around half had actually set aside money for retirement. However, 87% reported that they don’t have “enough money to start saving,” or they wanted to wait and pay down debt first. That means that they often miss out on some of the most important years of saving, Wimbish said.

“In this time of your life, market volatility is actually your friend, especially if you’re doing regular contributions to buy low and sell high,” she said. “To miss out on the first 10 to 15 years, the first part of your working life, by not saving has got huge implications down the road for how much you’re able to accumulate.”

Many millennials are skittish about entering the market given the volatility that they have grown up around. “They’re very uncomfortable being in the market in this environment with rates the way they are,” Wimbish said.

Often they do not meet the minimums to have an advisor and do not realize the options they have for retirement savings or the value of making sacrifices to both pay off debt and save at the same time, Wimbish said. In general, the majority of that age group relied on their parents for advice.

“It’s not that they’re consciously saying, ‘I don’t care about my future,’” Chelsea Castner, a brand strategist for Just Ask a Woman and millennial blogger for Wells Fargo's Beyond Today blog, said at the presentation. “They really don’t get how important planning is now.”

Still, a majority of millennials, 59%, reported that they would be interested in working with an advisor, and of those, 57% preferred an older, seasoned advisor with years of experience. So while some firms may not be able to afford to take them on as full-time clients, it makes sense to get out in front of them with other educational and investing resources, Wimbish said.

Wimbish also encouraged firms to reach out to that client base through online trading accounts, such as Wells Trade, which may not have minimums and allow investors a degree of individual control along with some basic tools and resources. Offering other online resources, such as retirement income calculators, can also be helpful, along with hosting resources and educational sessions for children at a young age, she said.

“We tend to think this generation goes online, so let’s put everything on there, but I don’t think that’s the answer in and of itself,” Wimbish said.

In addition, Wimbish encourages plan sponsors to adopt features such as auto-enroll and auto-increase functions for 401(k) and other plans at work. Still, without the right advice and education, that will not be enough to compensate for the longer life span millennials are also expected to reach.

“A lot of people are not going to be able to retire in the traditional sense of the word,” Wimbish said. “I think we’re going to have a huge paradigm shift in term of what retirement means for people.”

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