Only half of Gen Xers have a retirement account, and that's a catastrophe in the making

Gen X retirement savingsOleg Golovnev/EyeEmGen X is in worse financial shape than millennials when it comes to retirement.Oleg Golovnev/EyeEm

Millennials may bear the brunt of bad press, but Gen X is arguably in worse financial shape.

Insider recently teamed up with Morning Consult to survey 2,096 Americans about their financial health, debt, and earnings for its new series, "The State of Our Money." Of the total respondents, 566 were Gen X, defined as ages 39 to 54 this year.

According to the survey, exactly half of Gen Xers don't have a retirement savings account. That's only slightly less than the share of millennial respondents who don't have one (54%). That's particularly concerning considering the nearly two-decade span between the youngest millennials and oldest Gen Xers.

While the Silent Generation and early Baby Boomers have relied on a combination of pension benefits and Social Security to make up their retirement income, Gen X has largely had to assume the responsibility of building up their own nest egg, and they're clearly struggling.

All told, only 36% of Gen Xers are actively saving in a retirement account, while 13% have a dormant retirement account. Americans tend to earn the most money from their late 30s to early 60s, making it a crucial period for socking away extra income. 

And yet, "I don't earn enough money to save for retirement" was cited as a major reason for not saving by about 62% of those who don't have a retirement plan. Regardless of salary, the financial squeeze for many Americans tends to ramp up during mid-life. They're typically the most expensive years, when buying a house, supporting children, and accumulating debt become the norm.

About 43% of Gen Xers also said unemployment is a major reason they don't have a retirement account. This could be explained, at least in part, by mothers leaving work to care for young children during their 20s and 30s.

Still, according to Pew Research Center, women exiting the workforce to care for children is becoming less common. In fact, 70% of moms with kids under 18 worked in 2015. Many families are no longer relying on a single income to cover expenses and save for financial goals like retirement.  

A separate survey from Schwab Retirement Plan Services found that even those who are contributing to a 401(k) aren't saving enough. The typical Gen Xer thinks they'll need $1.8 million for a comfortable retirement, but they saved an average of just $9,500 last year - half of the maximum allowable contribution.

Check back on "The State of Our Money" throughout the month for more findings and analysis.

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