09/07/2014 05:38 pm ET Updated Nov 07, 2014


This past month I became parent to a teenager. Among the obvious anxieties this rite prompted, I also had the pleasure of learning American teens have been deemed "mediocre" when it comes to personal finance, according to a new global study from the Associated Press. Adding to this, Wells Fargo reported that in 2014, more than half of Millennials are living paycheck to paycheck. Sure, young people can build code for a new app, produce a digital web series in their bedrooms, open an artisanal mayonnaise stand, but balance a checkbook? Uh, after I finish this video game, Mom.

If only we could store debt in the cloud as we store their selfies! Turns out that debt is also a young person's problem, double the trouble for Millennials than it was for Baby Boomers at their age. The majority of Millennials report they have not begun to save, and to make matters worse, female Millennials say they feel more overwhelmed by debt than their male counterparts. When you consider that women will control an estimated 67 percent of the country's wealth by 2020, when Millennials really take the reins, you might start to worry about our macroeconomic future.

What's going on? Have young people become obsessed with their digital lives to the exclusion of other, more practical pursuits? Are they less valuable as employees? Are they just lazy? In fact, Millennials's heightened ability to network and survive in creative ways means we have a generation with more concurrent (and more varied) job titles than ever before. Just browse LinkedIn for anyone under the age of 30 and you'll find most have full-time, part-time, and a few all-the-time jobs thrown in.

A serious disconnect exists between how hard young people are working, and how precarious their finances are. The problem is, because the wealth and well-being of a society is the aggregate of everyone's finances, the possibility of the next generation living in insurmountable debt puts pressure on the entire system. This is not just a Millennial problem, or a women's issue, it is everyone's problem.

Even though I am of Generation X, as a chronic risk-taker, I get it. Since graduating from college I've dropped out of grad school to work in politics, left a prestigious job in Washington D.C. to travel overseas, resigned from a lucrative consulting gig to do voter registration in the New Hampshire snow, and politely departed a secure corporate job to run a start-up and create another, in spite of the fact that it paid me little.

But today I'm CEO of a company I helped create in large part due to these younger adventures. In fact, from the data, the only difference between my experience and that of a typical Millennial (other than my inability to write code or make anything artisanal) may be the one constant throughout my working life: I understood how to manage my bank account.

Tending to your money--maybe we should rebrand it "selfie-finance" - makes future failures possible, and provides financial resilience in the face of inevitable stumbles, moments of uncertainty, and wobbly career interludes. It gives you the chance to fall down, learn essential lessons, and try again. This has been key to my professional growth, but I worry that we have not made this a priority for our next generation of entrepreneurs who find themselves in an increasingly unstable job market.
It seems I'm not alone. Nicole Sherrod, a Managing Director at TDAmeritrade, is spending a lot of her time and resources to re-frame banking, and to equip Millennials with the information and tools they need to secure a stronger financial foundation.

According to Sherrod, a working mom and derivatives-trading tech geek, $4 trillion will be handed down to Millennials during the next 20 years. To help this generation manage its "inheritance," Sherrod helped develop TDAmeritrade's involvement in a new initiative called LikeFolio, directed at Millennials, to connect companies mentioned in their social media streams with relevant investment opportunities. She also created--and TDAmeritrade has supported "Up," a program that uses investing as a tool to help women shape the life and career they want.

It was wise of Sherrod to steer her corporate ship towards what will one day soon become its customer beachhead, but she can't effect wide-scale transformation alone. Other corporations need to join TDAmeritrade. And for their part, Millennials, as prospective participants in our nation's financial future, must learn to see the value in paying attention to annual reports, earnings calls, and the business of business. (For our part, Glass Elevator's She's So Boss initiative will address financial literacy on an upcoming "Tour Boss" of national high schools and college campuses.)

It is also incumbent upon Baby Boomers and GenXers, as role models, to set the example. Businesswomen too, like their male counterparts, need to model their inner analyst, noting products they like, businesses they see growing, and companies with values aligned to their own. Finally, we must all support the people in our lives who want to embrace risk, and know they will grow more from failure than in maintaining the status quo.

It's phenomenal that everyone is jazzed about leaning in, stepping up, jumping, leaping, soaring high and the like. As testament, the proliferation of inspirational videos to stoke our drive and ambition certainly add to the conversation. These tools, however, do little good if we don't tend to our personal finances first. It's not only an individual and family obligation, it's a global macroeconomic calling as well.

If we can engage young people of both genders in a more effective dialogue about their financial future, we could be doing the economy at large a huge favor. And that artisanal mayo will be available in far more supermarkets nationwide if these efforts are a success. Who knows, maybe I'll detour and dabble in a little something artisanal myself.