How to Boost Millennial 401k Participation Rates

How well are their demands addressed in the 401(k) space?

impact investing, 401ks, millinnealsThey're used to getting what they want.

It’s no secret that millennials are driving demand for environmentally and socially conscious investing. Amidst a fraught political climate, millennials see their investments as a clear way to vote with their dollars.

A whopping 85 percent of millennials surveyed in the 2016 US Trust “Insights on Wealth and Worth” study said they consider their investment decisions as a way to express their social, political, and environmental values.

So how well is this demand being addressed in the 401(k) space? Clearly, not well enough.

According to a Natixis study, 71 percent of millennial respondents agreed that they would be more likely to contribute or increase their contributions if they knew their investments were doing social good. Seventy-seven percent of these same millennial participants stated that they “would like to see more socially responsible investments in [their] retirement plan offering.”

“If I were to have a say in what my 401k was invested in, then I would want it to be environmentally and socially responsible,” says Katy Dalton, a fresh college graduate and communications fellow for a Denver non-profit. “If such options were offered, I would be super excited.”

When asked about the prospect of re-entering the job market and evaluating prospective employers’ benefits, Rachel Lieurance, a 23 year-old public policy analyst, says she would prefer a 401(k) plan that aligned with both her values and the mission of her prospective employer.

“I think I would be more drawn to a company that offers a socially and environmentally conscious 401(k) plan because I think it communicates that the company places a certain value on the environment and society,” she says.

A vast majority of Natixis’ millennial respondents certainly desire investments that reflect their personal values, but many also see the financial value of these investments. Natixis reported that 74 percent of millennial participants agreed that “companies that provide clean water and clean energy present significant growth opportunities for my investments.”

Marcel Gremaud, a young digital marketing coordinator, falls into this camp.

“I believe that the clean energy sector as a whole will grow a lot in the coming years, so if I was offered a fund that included this industry, then I would include it in my portfolio.”

While demand for socially and environmentally responsible 401k options is high, millennial participation in 401k plans has room for improvement. Millennial contributions have surged with the rise of automated enrollment, but millennials remain much less likely to contribute than their older colleagues. Offering funds that align with millennial values and their visions for the future economy creates an opportunity to close this participation gap.

Burke Pemberton witnessed a jump in 401k participation first hand. As CFO of stok, a real estate services firm made up of majority millennial employees, Pemberton led the charge in rolling out stok’s fossil free 401k plan with the help of HIP Investor. Stok’s fossil free 401k option resulted in 100% employee participation, a dramatic rise from an original rate of 14 percent.

As with millennials who are interested in clean tech opportunities for future portfolio growth, stok employees appreciate that their 401k options consider future risks.

“I spend my days working towards a regenerative future for our partners and my family,” Warren Neilson, a stok principal, remarked to Pemberton. “It doesn’t make any sense for me to turn around and invest my hard-earned money into business models that are destroying the future we’re co-creating.”

“Using HIP’s Sustainability Impact Ratings gives us a forward look at how our retirement funds are mitigating future risks associated with climate change and social injustice,” Pemberton reiterates.

Closing the participation gap isn’t just for the millennials—the inclusion of young participants has clear benefits for business owners and executives, too.

“When next-gen workers get excited about responsible investing and participate, the sustainable 401(k) plan allows Highly Compensated Employees (HCE)’s to better leverage the tax benefits of a retirement plan on account of younger workers becoming more engaged and inspired to invest in company-sponsored plans. This can be a huge tax benefit to business owners and can reduce the need for employer matching.”

Pemberton explains that stok’s fossil free 401k plan has also noticeably helped attract talent for the firm.

“Without a doubt, the 401(k) plan is the most talked about benefit offered by stok. Not only has it been good for retention and recruiting, but stok’s fossil-free 401k has been an extremely effective conversation starter. It’s a great story that lets our partners know that we are authentic – we literally ‘put our money where our mouth is’.”

It seems that it will pay to listen to the millennial generation. As recipients of the ongoing $30 to $60 trillion wealth transfer, millennials will come to hold immense financial power. By combining technological enhancements like auto-enrollment with environmentally and socially focused portfolio options, 401k providers who jump on this opportunity will harness a crucial competitive advantage. Likewise, employers who respond to this demand may appear more attractive to younger talent—and boost their bottom line while they’re at it.

For employers, 401k providers, and millennials alike, these environmentally and socially focused funds just might be the golden—or green—ticket.

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Arina Abbott is an Associate with Green Alpha Advisors, an asset manager that invests equities in the innovation-driven, sustainable economy.

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