“The Great Wealth Transfer” sounds like long-ago history, but it’s happening right now. If you’re sorting out your estate or expecting a windfall someday, it’s happening to you — and it could be transformative for a generation of women.
Here’s what you need to know as we move into this new era.
What is the Great Wealth Transfer?
The Great Wealth Transfer is a colossal shift in who owns money in the United States. Right now, half of all wealth is held by Boomers. Over the next 20 years, it will be inherited. And women will control more money than they ever have.
This gender shift is happening in two ways. Women tend to live longer than men, so more women Boomers will manage their wealth independently. Meanwhile, money will be handed down. Gen X will receive some, but the much larger millennial generation — with its record numbers of single women — will end up with most of it.
Some sources have this amount of money at $84 trillion. Others say it’s closer to $129 trillion, thanks to government policy during the pandemic. And we don’t need to wait a generation, either: This is going on right now. In fact, by 2030, American women will manage at least $30 trillion, more than the national GDP. We’ve never seen this kind of change in our lives, or in our grandmothers’ lives.
A history-making opportunity for women and wealth
The gender wealth gap, or the discrepancy in the amount of money men vs women own, is much larger than the pay gap. Plus, even if the pay gap disappeared, women would still be at a serious economic disadvantage thanks to centuries of legal oppression, especially for Black and Native American women. See: slavery, Jim Crow, being denied land sovereignty, unequal access to education, redlining, and modern-day inequities that all affect who gets to build wealth and how.
The gender wealth gap acknowledges that financial equality isn’t just about the money you have now — it’s also about your capacity for making things better for your family in the long run and how you’re able to create stability for future generations.
So while the Great Wealth Transfer can budge the wealth gap, it won’t close it completely. But what is encouraging is what women will choose to do with their money. Will we inherit it and let it sit in the bank? Or will we step into our power and use it intentionally?
When women have more control of generational wealth
Since this has never happened before, we don’t know for sure what women will choose to do with their money. But we do have access to a lot of research that paints a picture. A world where women control more wealth could look very different.
Let’s start with philanthropy. Women (especially high net worth women) give away a larger percentage of their wealth. They also tend to give more as their income rises. As more women come into money during the Great Wealth Transfer, we could see non-profits become more fully funded.
The impact on women
Not only do women give more to philanthropic causes, they’re far more likely to give to organizations supporting women and girls, addressing issues like reproductive rights, women’s health, and violence against women.
Then there’s the economic advantage. When women have more money, some will use it to start businesses. Women-run businesses hire more women and pay them more. That’s great all around, because companies with women leaders continue to outperform companies without them. Imagine fewer women entrepreneurs hamstrung by the 2.1% venture financing gap.
Beyond just giving, there’s investing. 61% of millennials are already investing for impact. That’s twice the rate of Boomers — a sea change. Women are also more likely to align their investments with their values. This includes investing in other women, also known as “gender-lens investing.” In this kind of investing, we look carefully at companies to see how gender imbalance can be a financial risk — and how gender parity or a business focus on women can be a financial opportunity.
That word “opportunity” is important here: Closing pay gaps and advancing women’s equality can add trillions to global growth. It’s no surprise that gender-lens investing is associated with better returns.
The impact on climate
The effect of women investing for the climate could be even more important. With women making up 80% of people affected by climate change, it’s no surprise that women are more likely to invest for positive climate impact. In fact, 62% of women told Ellevest that the climate is a top financial concern, above even retirement planning or the stock market. Meanwhile, 88% of millennials are also interested in climate-themed investments.
Let's do some hypothetical math. Given that so many women say that climate is their most important issue, what would happen if women invested 10% of their portfolio into investing for the climate? Of the $80 trillion women are expected to control by 2030, that's $8 trillion.
Let's get a sense of scale here: The Global Climate Policy Initiative says that the annual financial flow needed to address climate change in 2030 will be $8.1 to 9 trillion. That's just one-tenth of the amount of money women will control that year.
This is real money for real change. We could make it happen, together.
How to prepare for a transfer of wealth
It can be easy to put off planning for an inheritance. But every single money decision you make has an impact — be that positive or negative. If we don’t have a plan, we can’t step into our power effectively.
If you think you’ll be managing money
If you might inherit, now is the time to build a foundation. Although we highly encourage families to have conversations about money early and often, you should start thinking about it now even if you don’t know all the details or think it’s still many years down the road. The amount doesn’t matter, as long as it’s more than you currently own.
The world has changed since Boomer women couldn’t even get credit cards. But cultural taboos still have power. One study suggests that wealthy millennial women are more likely to defer financial decisions to their spouses than Boomer women are. (Really!)
Here are three questions to ask yourself to start taking control.
1. What are your financial goals?
Your starting point should always be yourself. What do you need and want to do in the next five years? Ten years? In retirement? As a legacy? Maybe you’re sending kids to college, planning retirement, or both. Maybe you want to take a sabbatical, start a business for yourself, or quit your job to focus on other things. What can you do with your current financial status, and how would your priorities change after the transfer?
2. Do you have an approach for impact investing?
Next, it’s about aligning your values with your investments. The amount you have to invest doesn’t matter as much as having a solid plan for leaving an impact.
At Ellevest, we have a few approaches to impact we don’t see replicated well elsewhere. Rather than just screening out a few companies, we use a critical, ranked approach so you’re investing in the companies ranked highly for the issues you care about. We also offer impact alternatives that make a direct impact, and we report back regularly on the real-world impact your portfolio is having. (We hope more teams will follow this approach as more women refuse to settle for the “greenwashing” of impact investing — which right now is all too common.)
3. Do you know who your team will be?
Will you want to move from your family’s current financial advisor, like many women do after a big life change? Over and over, women say they want advisors who listen to them, but 40% of women still feel ignored by their financial advisor. In my experience, clients want us to help them learn. They want to know the why and not just the what, so that they truly understand their money.
And do you know what other types of advisors you’ll need to consult? You’ll probably need an estate attorney for legal paperwork and an accountant / CPA for tax advice. A financial advisor is a good place to start — at Ellevest, your advisor will help you figure out who else you’ll need on your team and even make introductions if you’re interested.
4. What is your plan for the actual windfall?
This one can come last: You’ll want a clear idea of the logistics that may come with an inheritance. Those range from tax implications to choosing a strategy for investing a large amount of money. Your financial team is there to help you with this, but it’s good to know what to expect.
If you’re building generational wealth
A lot of the pain of estate planning boils down to communication. Cameron Rogers, CFA®, thought deeply about talking about generational wealth. “The emotions everyone is feeling can keep you from communicating clearly,” she says. “You want to move your legacy forward, they have their own ideas, you’re both coping with the thought of change and loss.”
One strategy is to let data push the conversation forward. Find facts that support your point of view. Another is to define your overall philanthropic approach together — it’s a great way to bond around shared values and use them to organize your portfolio. You can also defuse charged conversations by asking your financial advisor to step in and give perspective.
The Great Wealth Transfer is truly a history-making opportunity. If you start thinking about it now, you’ll be in a good place to start making some history of your own.
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