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Moving Home: When College Grads Face Uncertain Futures

First Posted: 05/24/2011 8:59 am Updated: 05/10/2012 12:17 am


Half a century ago, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had attained traditional markers of maturity by their 30th birthday: They had left home, finished school, gotten a job, married, and started a family. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2000, less than half of 30-year-old women and just one-third of 30-year-old men had attained similar markers of adulthood.

A lot, but not all, of the shift has to do with work -- or, more specifically, a lack of work, say analysts and others. They argue that the current recession has pushed 20-somethings farther and faster in a direction they were already headed.

Sending your kid to college once was a way of ensuring their sure-footed success. But with 20-somethings mired in debt and confronting a dearth of decent-paying jobs, many are returning to the nest.

"I can assure you that few people in my generation are living high off the hog in their parents' house," says Matthew Segal, the 25-year-old founder of Our Time, a national membership organization for young people under 30. He says he resents the popular characterization of 20-somethings as lazy and unmoored. "Trust me, they're not getting too comfortable sleeping in their childhood bedroom or eating out of their parents' fridge. They're moving home because they don't have jobs and they have a lot of debt."

Except for designated downtime, when she's either making art or weaving on her loom, Malik spends much of her time avoiding thinking about what became of the goals her parents helped her to set. Her mother always encouraged her to think and dream big. Yet since graduating from college, she's found herself doing the exact opposite.

Her dream for the future used to encompass a well-appointed and comfortable life -- a farmhouse, two artist studios, a husband, and several children. "But it's not worth dreaming so big anymore," says Malik. "My plans now are far less extravagant. I guess I'm learning to dream on a much smaller scale."

Specifically, she doesn't think she'll be able to afford a home as nice as her mother's. Nor, she predicts, will she be able to send her own children to schools as fancy as those that she attended.

"The hope that things are going to get better is really all we have," she explains. "I mean, on top of being the generation that's struggling, we don't want to be the generation that's cynical, too."

Some scholars attribute such hard-wired optimism to the way that the parents of 20-somethings raised them. Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais co-author books about millennials (typically defined as the generation born between 1982 and 2003).

"Millennials were raised the way Bill Cosby told parents to raise their kids -- set rules, show encouragement, don't use physical discipline, build up a child's self-esteem," explains Winograd. "If you tell someone from zero to 13 that they're always doing a nice job and that they're really special and wonderful, they'll wind up believing they are."

Self-confidence breeds optimism, according to Winograd and Hais, even when times are tough. "The millennials don't have a sense that everything is wonderful, because obviously it isn't, but they believe as a country that things will get better and their lives will also get better," says Hais. "In part, it's because they're young and they actually have time to accomplish this. But it's also because generations like the millennials feel they've accomplished good things in the past and that they will again in the future because their parents told them so."

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a psychology professor at Clark University, is also struck by the optimism of the young adults that he studies. "I think the main reason for their optimism is that dreams are cheap in emerging adulthood. That is, their dreams haven't yet been tested in the fires of real, adult life. And who knows, maybe they really will find their dream job?"

In general, young people are taking longer to assume more traditional adult responsibilities and young lives are unfolding in a less predictable sequence, Arnett says. He views the twenties as a new and distinct life stage and classifies it as "emerging adulthood."

According to Arnett, this stage generally starts around the age of 18 and continues until an individual is in his or her mid-to-late twenties. While the category itself is fluid, "emerging adulthood" refers to a time during which young people are relatively free of obligations. But many 20-somethings, like Malik, are increasingly delaying adult responsibilities because they can't secure a job stable enough to allow them to take the steps necessary to establish an independent life.

As such, even youthful optimism has its limits. Despite a general proclivity toward positive thinking, analysts say current circumstances are weighing down this generation of 20-somethings.

"The mood for young people definitely isn't as optimistic as it's been in the past," says Carl Van Horn, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University. Last week, he and his colleagues released a study titled "Unfulfilled Expectations: Recent College Graduates Struggle in a Troubled Economy." It polled young people who graduated from college between 2006 and 2010. "You expect people to be optimistic when they're young about their ability to get ahead," Van Horn says. "It's pretty clear that this group of college students are feeling very much like their opportunities have been stunted."