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Kansas City, Mo. - The tech bubble wiped out Tyler Sadlow's first foray into the stock market. He had invested $100 in 1999 with his grandfather's help.
"We put it all in Level 3 Communications. . So we lost all that money," said Sadlow, who is working on a graduate degree in accounting. "It was a lot of money for me."
Tough lesson for a 10-year-old and one the Lenexa, Kan., resident remembers at 23.
When he returned to the stock market last fall, Sadlow decided to take on less risk than a financial adviser recommended for someone his age. That meant less money in stocks.
Many young investors - confronting lousy markets and Wall Street scandals - aren't embracing the stock market as eagerly as their predecessors did. Others, caught in the economic malaise with low-paying jobs or no job at all, simply don't have money to invest.
The millennial generation has faced a tougher road starting out than most.
"That kind of 18-to-34 group, all they've known in their lives is crisis. It's tech bubble. It's 9/11. It's financial crisis. It's housing bubble," said Dan Berman, who manages the two Charles Schwab investment offices in the Kansas City area. "As much as they understand the power of investing, all they've had is negative reinforcement."
Older investors have the benefit of knowing better times when risk meant reward. Many also own at least a budding start on their golden years to nurture.
So far, the evidence on young Americans suggests an undecided generation, teetering at the market's edge.
A mutual fund industry survey showed Americans under 35 have turned away from investment risks more since 2008 than older groups have.
And a May survey by Charles Schwab found that 29 percent of young investors were planning to pull money out of the stock market compared with only 11 percent of older investors.
Berman said young investors are willing to open savings accounts at Schwab. But many have shied away from risking money in the stock market.
"You hear the fear," he said.
But all Americans' investing confidence has taken a hit.
Larry Cohen, director of Strategic Business Insights in Princeton, N.J., has been asking Americans for their financial opinions every two years for decades. In a 2010 survey, more than 60 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, "The stock market is too risky for me." That was more than in any year since 1990.
The 2010 survey also showed all age groups - from twenty-somethings through sixty-somethings - grew far more confident during the stock market's heady run until 2000 and became equally cautious by 2010.
Data from millions of 401(k) accounts show that young investors remained willing in 2010 to stuff their retirement plans at work with stocks, even as older workers backed away from the market.
Much rides on young Americans' decision to invest. Starting early would give them the easiest path to retirement. But if they reject the stock market, they stand the risk of retiring wholly unprepared.
Their collective decision may weigh on older generations, too. Without young investors in the market, older investors would find fewer potential buyers. And that could mean potentially lower prices when they need to sell stocks as retirement approaches.
With the stakes so high, many are worried about youth's ultimate choice.
"We're at risk of losing an entire generation of investors," John Thiel, head of private banking and the investment group at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, told an industry conference in April.
Reluctance to invest is less of an issue for some young investors than dealing with the financial stresses of a bad economy, said Stewart Koesten, of KHC Wealth Management in Overland Park, Kan.
After all, work is scarce. Unemployment tops 14 percent among Americans between 20 and 25.
And those lucky enough to find that first job are just setting up. They've got car payments and rent; they need a rainy day fund. Add a big student loan payment, and maybe nothing's left for a nest egg.
Financial advisers recognize that nest eggs are an early victim in the extreme budget battles that many in this generation face.
Their ability to invest is further threatened by an explosion in student loans, which means a future of debt payments. The federal government has originated $1.3 trillion in new student loans since mid-2009, a June report from Wells Fargo Securities said.
Tanya Sherman figures her student loans, if they came due now, would put an end to her investing plans.
Only 22, Sherman has had an Edward Jones investment account for more than three years. A little bit of every paycheck she earned at a call center job went into that account while she attended Kansas State University.
The call center closed, and Sherman ended up leaving school. Now, she's a year into her new job and finishing her education online.
After the rent, bills and car payment, Sherman figures there still should be enough to restart the Edward Jones investing. Maybe cut down on expensive makeup.
"If I had to make the student debt payment, on top of my car? Absolutely not. I would be in the negative," she said.