Millennials want to retire by 60. Good luck with that.

The average millennial is 30-something, an age by which most of us are well-versed in the ups and downs of financial life.

It may come as a surprise, then, that the average millennial expects to retire before 60, a goal not many of us can afford to attain.

In a February poll, YouGov asked millennials when they expect to retire. The largest share, 30%, chose the age range of 51 to 60. Another recent survey, by Principal Financial, found that the average millennial expects to retire at 59.

Other retirement surveys find millennials planning to work well into their sixties. Yet, taken together, the reports suggest a clear pattern.

Millennials expect to retire younger. Older Americans, of Generation X and the baby boom, expect to retire older. Few workers of any age have the necessary funds to retire early.

“There’s a huge difference between wanting to retire at 55 and actually retiring at 55,” said Sam Nofzinger, general manager of brokerage at Public, an investment platform based in New York.

A paradox at the center of millennial America’s working life

Retirement surveys reveal a paradox at the center of the millennial Americans’ working life: They hope to retire early. They expect retirement to cost $1 million or more. Yet, they have saved only a small fraction of that sum.

One recent report, from Northwestern Mutual, found that millennials believe they will need $1.65 million to retire comfortably. To date, however, millennials have amassed only $62,600 in average retirement savings. That leaves a retirement “gap” of more than $1.5 million.

Financing a comfortable retirement in America means using some combination of Social Security, savings and other sources to replace lost wages in the final years of life.

The earlier you retire, the more money you’ll need. Social Security doesn’t kick in until age 62, and Medicare doesn’t generally cover health care costs until 65.

“Most people, the vast majority, would be unprepared to go into retirement before their 60s,” said Henry Yoshida, CEO of Rocket Dollar, a retirement platform based in Austin, Texas.

Millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, are the largest generation in the American labor force, making up nearly two-fifths of the working population in 2020, according to a Johns Hopkins University report.

Millennials face a retirement dilemma

The 2023 Transamerica Retirement Survey of Workers, published by the nonprofit Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, underscores the generation’s dilemma.

The largest share of millennials, 32%, expect to retire before 65, the study found. But only one-third of millennials have a written retirement plan. Most millennials have retirement savings, but the typical millennial has saved only $49,000.

One upside: Millennials seem to be planning for retirement earlier than older generations. According to the Transamerica survey, the median millennial started saving for retirement at 25. The typical Gen-Xer, by contrast, waited until 30 to begin saving for retirement. Boomers put it off until 35.

“From everything I’ve seen, they’ve actually had better habits,” Yoshida said. “They have proven themselves to be far more interested, knowledgeable than Generation X or boomers” in preparing for retirement. “I don’t think they get enough credit for that.”

Millennials have endured their share of economic setbacks.

Millennials ‘just can’t catch a break’

Many millennials were in school when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, entered the workforce during the late-2000s Great Recession and were entering their peak working years when COVID hit and largely shut down the economy.

“You just can’t catch a break as a millennial,” said Nofzinger, who is part of that generation. “You had 9/11, then you had the collapse, then you had COVID. Every 10 years, you had a hundred-year flood.”

Those crises shaped the millennials, financial experts say, giving them a stronger sense of living in the moment and a less materialistic outlook than the generations that preceded them.

“I think the millennial generation, in general, is more about carpe diem,” said Jaime Eckels, a certified financial planner in Auburn Hills, Michigan. “They don’t want to sit at a desk and work until they’re 65 years old. They want to travel and have life experience.”

Michelle Winterfield, a Detroit millennial, is co-founder of Tandem, an app that helps couples manage their finances.

Winterfield knows millennials struggle to save for retirement, and she doesn’t believe it is entirely their fault.

“I think living expenses have gone crazy, especially for people living in cities,” she said.

Because home prices and mortgage rates have soared, many millennials lack the funds to purchase a first home, a rite of passage for older generations.

‘You are starting much farther behind’

“You are starting much farther behind,” Winterfield said.

A 2022 study by the nonprofit Urban Institute concluded that early millennials, born in the 1980s, are more likely than older Americans to come up short on retirement funds.

The study projected that 38% of older millennials will face inadequate income at 70, compared with 35% of early Gen-Xers, 30% of late boomers and 28% of early boomers. The report cited growing wage inequality between rich and poor Americans, among other factors.

And what, exactly, would it take for a millennial to retire comfortably at 55?

Everyone’s situation is different. But financial planners often say a worker needs to spend at least 25 years building retirement savings, setting aside at least 10% of their earnings.

“If people have a 12%-to-15% of gross income saving rate for a period of 25 years or more, then at the end of that period, they can retire, with the caveat that they have low personal expenditures,” said Yoshida of Rocket Dollar. “No mortgage. No consumer debt.”

A millennial born in 1995 could start saving aggressively now and have a good shot at retiring comfortably by 60, said Jean Smart, CEO of Penelope, a 401(k) platform for small business, based in New York.

But the case might be hopeless for a 40-something millennial who hasn’t saved much for retirement, especially someone laden with debt from credit cards or student loans.

“Even within the generation,” Smart said, “there’s, like, a tale of two cities.”