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A survey conducted for the AFL-CIO suggests many American workers under 35 can't manage the basic financial building blocks of an adult life. The union refers to a "lost decade" for these young people -- a 10-year span of their lives in which they fell short on getting their own places, finding stable jobs and saving money for emergencies.

About 31% of survey respondents said they made enough money to pay their bills and set some money aside, but 70% said they did not have enough money saved to cover two months' worth of living expenses. Parents of these young workers know how far they are from making it on their own; one-third are living with their folks.

"Along almost every metric, people under 35 are doing much worse than they were 10 years ago," says Jennifer Jannon, a regional director for Working America, the AFL-CIO's community organization for nonunion workers. "People are literally putting off starting their adult lives because of the conditions they're facing economically," she says.

Jannon says the results should not be interpreted as laziness. "Young people are really yearning to move out on their own to start their adult lives," she says. "(But) they can't find the type of work that supports an adult life."

Some take issue with suggestions that the current job market is more difficult for younger workers than for their counterparts over 35. "It's easier for younger people because they have less experience and they don't cost as much," says Robin Ryan, a career counselor and the author of "60 Seconds and You're Hired." "If you're over 40, a lot of employers see you as expensive," Ryan says.

Employers may also assume younger workers are more tech-savvy and can adapt more quickly to a changing workplace, she says.

Despite those advantages, the result for young workers will be a substantial loss of potential wealth over their lifetimes. A person who's able to save, say, $2,000 a year from age 22 to 30 will retire with more money than a person who saves the same amount over a longer period from age 30 to 60, says Thomas Holland, a partner at wealth advisory firm Global Vision Advisors.

It's crucial that those 70% of young workers who don't have enough savings to last two months start saving right away. "Though the economy may be poor, what I find is that if you don't establish savings habits early in your career, it's not likely that at some golden age you'll learn to save," Holland says.

Here's a trio of guidelines for workers in Generations X and Y who are trying to start saving:

1. Cut your expenses

"'Spend less than you earn' is the fundamental principle of personal finance," says J.D. Roth, a co-author of the book "10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget." "It seems really simple and obvious, but so many people don't do that."

Evaluate regular expenses such as gym memberships, Netflix subscriptions and unlimited text-messaging plans to see how much you're really using them. "If you're not actually using it very much, get rid of it," says Trent Hamm, the author of the book "365 Ways to Live Cheap."

"People in their 20s tend to do a lot of expensive things with their friends," Hamm says. Don't spend without thinking just to keep up with your peers, he cautions.

Hamm suggests finding a hobby that you're really passionate about. By focusing your mental energy on one thing you love -- and seeking out friends who share that interest -- you may find yourself not "spending money just for the sake of spending money," Hamm says.

2. Set goals

It's easier to save if you have a clear idea of what you're saving for, Holland says. "If you really spend the time to think about why you're working in the first place, you're much more likely to save more and be more intentional with where you're saving," he says.

If you choose to build up an emergency fund of six months' worth of expenses or to put a down payment on a house, each small amount you put aside will feel more meaningful.

Saving for specific purposes might also help you stay more focused on your personal goals. It's a mistake to act because of your envy of someone whose car, apartment or shiny gadgets are nicer than yours, Holland says.

"Never judge people based on their lifestyle and where they live in terms of their worth because it's never a correlation. More times than not, they're worth less than the person living in the smaller house driving the Honda Accord," Holland says.

3. Make it easy

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The easiest way to save for retirement is to take advantage of an employer's offer to match your contribution to a 401k. You can also set up automatic transfers from your checking account to make building an emergency fund just as easy.

"It's a lot easier to save because you don't have to think about it every time (and) you don't have the opportunity to talk yourself out of it," Hamm says.

Workers whose jobs don't offer matching contributions to retirement funds can set up a Roth individual retirement account. "They're easy as pie to set up; it's just actually doing it and taking action that's always the trick," says Hamm. As a further incentive, low-income workers may be eligible for a tax credit of up to $2,000 for contributions to a retirement savings account such as an IRA.

Once you've established a saving habit, stick with it. One common problem is what author Roth refers to as "lifestyle inflation," the inevitable desire to respond to a raise or a bonus by spending more. The most successful people he's seen with personal finance don't spend more money as their incomes increase; instead, they bank that money, he says.

This article was reported by Sarah Morgan for SmartMoney.