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Generation Debt: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

"The issue with student loans is what the consumer is getting in return," says Todd Balsley of GL Advisor, a Waltham, Mass.-based consultancy that helps those with graduate degrees to plan for future goals and present debt loads. "If you have a student taking on $150,000 of debt with little or no job opportunities when they get out," he says, "that's a huge issue."

And, no income means no 401(k) or IRA contributions, much less spare emergency cash under the mattress.

For that reason, student debt is also redefining retirement--that nebulous future condition when we're all supposed to be free and happy, living off a lifetime's smart choices.

But, let's face it: retirement as we know it is a 20th century invention. The idea that one could plan for a 15- or 30-year window of golfing, crossword puzzles and trips to see the grandkids--all the while covering monthly bills--isn't quite ludicrous. That would be an uncharitable view of a very real aspiration for more than three generations of Americans.

It is, however, changing.

"We are seeing a transformation in the retirement income model," says Kathy Weatherford, president and CEO of the Insured Retirement Institute (IRI). "Employers have shifted from offering traditional defined benefit pension plans to defined contribution plans, such as 401(k)s. In doing so, the risks associated with these plans--including investment risk and longevity risk--have shifted to individuals."

Weatherford notes that this transformation is also about uncertainty. Entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare continue to be under the microscope not only for budget hawks but also for the millions of Americans approaching those magic ages of 62 and 65, respectively. What will entitlement programs look like for the Boomers in 10 or 20 years? And, what will they look like for Gen X-ers who may be in their prime earning years, but also in their prime debt years.

Last year, IRI concluded a comprehensive study of the retirement attitudes of Generation X-ers and found that two-thirds were nonplussed about their retirement prospects. IRI's "Retirement Readiness of Generation X" notes that the recession has prompted 15% of Gen X-ers to withdraw from their 401(k) plans and 23% to stop contributing to their retirement accounts altogether. Those diverted funds, says Weatherford, map onto the difficulty claimed by Gen X-ers in paying for essentials such as food, gasoline and medicine.

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