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The investment advice business has a millennial problem.

As clients of advice firms, the young adults born between the early eighties and mid-nineties are close to statistically insignificant. A study by the PriceMetrix unit of consulting giant McKinsey & Co. shows this cohort accounted for just 2 per cent of assets at investment advisory firms in North America last year.

No, this isn’t a result of millennials still establishing themselves in the working world. First off, the oldest millennials are now in their mid-30s. Second, that 2-per-cent figure hasn’t changed in four years.

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The study says the scarcity of young clients helps explain why the average age of advisory clients was 64.2 years in 2017, up from 63.6 in 2014. “While money is gradually shifting to younger generations, the lack of new account openings and the climbing average client age are early signals that without market appreciation, advisers could face significant headwinds in the future with respect to asset growth,” the study says.

Bay Street seems to understand it has a millennial problem. The Ontario Securities Commission recently issued a study aimed at starting a conversation about how to better serve the needs of today’s young adult investors. From the perspective of PriceMetrix, part of the problem is that the advice business has focused more in recent years on serving larger accounts. “Full-service advice is more discerning now in terms of who they let in,” said Patrick Kennedy, a co-author of the study. “There’s been a broad industry trend to work with more affluent clients over the last decade or so and in many cases that meant effectively sending younger clients who didn’t have the assets to other channels.”

The utter lack of growth in business from millennials in the past four years suggests a broader problem that may have two distinct parts. One appears to be an inability to connect with tech-savvy, cost-conscious young adults who seem more willing than previous generations to question the status quo. The second part may relate to how millennials are faring in the economy. As noted in this article I wrote last year, young adults are having a tough time building careers. Because of job uncertainty, they may be more focused on saving for the near term than investing for the long term.

Finally, expensive housing may also be keeping millennials from committing their money to investments. Saving for a down payment and then adjusting to home ownership and daycare costs means not much money is left over to invest.

Millennials may simply take longer than expected to become candidates for full-service investment advice. The question for the advice business is whether it wants to sit back and wait for that to happen, or figure out a way to start reaching out to the young-adult audience right now.

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