Opinion - Investor Toolkit

That $30 trillion 'great wealth transfer' is a myth

Gabriel Garcia, managing director and head of relationship management at BNY Mellon’s Pershing Advisor Solutions
Key Points
  • Baby boomers, the wealthiest generation in history, may be worth $30 trillion, but heirs shouldn't count on getting most of that in inheritance.
  • Americans now approaching, or are in early retirement, are more likely to spend their money on themselves than pass it on — and they have many years left to live.
  • Advisors can look forward to many more years of helping boomers manage their money.

Baby boomers, the wealthiest generation in history, are aging and are now preparing to pass down a record-breaking amount of assets to their heirs.

Economists and financial observers have dubbed this significant intergenerational passing of wealth the "great wealth transfer," the price tag of which is estimated at $30 trillion. Despite the promise of this huge sum, I have some advice for those financial advisors and children of baby boomers who have been avidly awaiting an inheritance windfall: Don't bet on it.

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Don't get me wrong, the wealth transfer is coming, but it should not be expected to fall neatly. When the boomers pass on their inheritance, the sums are likely to be small, fragmented and drained.

Here are some reasons why you shouldn't expect a personal taste of the wealth transfer.

First, baby boomers have a "you only live once" mindset. Boomers have been uniquely focused on having personally and professionally productive retirements. They seem driven to try new experiences and stay active throughout their golden years. Preferring to pursue their passions and work doing what they love, many boomers are pursuing flexible working arrangements rather than fully retiring. In turn, they may dip into their retirement savings while they are still working.

$30 trillion is about to change hands in the U.S.

Boomers are more likely than other generations to take risks by investing some or all their retirement funds into starting their own business after leaving a corporate job, and they seek new and interesting ways to spend their retirement money that may or may not produce an income stream to help fund expensive retirement activities.

As part of that "you only live once" mentality, baby boomers spend more on nearly everything than today's younger generations, up to $400 billion annually on consumer goods — everything from clothing and entertainment to home improvements — in addition to $120 billion on leisure travel. All of these expenditures and risks are compounded by the traditional costs of aging and the loss of a steady income in retirement.

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Boomers also believe it's now time they take care of themselves. Many boomers also feel that they can both support their families and enjoy their free time. After spending years supporting children and grandchildren with school tuition, and down payments for homes and cars, many boomers are now enjoying their money while they can.

According to a recent Gransnet survey of 1,000 grandparents ages 50–70, 1 in 6 plans to spend all their money before they die. Meanwhile, a Hearts and Wallets study of participants in their 50s and 60s found only 40 percent planned to leave inheritances, while 30 percent specifically expected to spend all their money.

Boomers are also more likely to gift their wealth to charitable causes, making the wealth transfer to heirs smaller than anticipated. And whatever they do to distribute these funds will likely be split up between multiple heirs and even the children of heirs.

So what does all this mean? Both wealth advisors and investors should avoid building expectations of a boomer payout. For advisors, betting on inheritance is already a risky proposition: The vast majority of inheritors fire their parents' financial advisors upon receipt of their inheritance, and a growth strategy that rests solely on the boomer generation is no longer a growth strategy.

For investors the news may be disappointing, but relying on one's own ability to create wealth has always been the only strategy that works. In fact, 70 percent of wealthy families lose their wealth by the second generation and 90 percent do by the third, according to the Williams Group wealth consultancy.

But for investors, there's also good news. The wealth management industry was built by boomers for boomers. And with the oldest of this generation just turning 71 last year, and life expectancy stretching into the late 80s, the great wealth transfer is not yet upon us. This means that there will be an opportunity for wealth advisory businesses to serve both the boomers and the next generation. As such, investors will start to see the emergence of new business models that are tailored to their specific needs and behaviors.

As the late, great Yogi Berra famously said, "It ain't over 'til it's over." The great wealth transfer is coming and will continue for the next several decades. However, the ways by which wealth advisors and investors will navigate this event can change greatly in the coming years.

How both groups meet these challenges, though, is entirely in their most capable hands.

— By Gabriel Garcia, managing director and head of relationship management at BNY Mellon's Pershing Advisor Solutions.