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Millennial Myths

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Guess which current generation this statement describes: Twentysomethings who are taking longer than ever before to get married, choose a career, move out of their parents' home, become financially independent, and, essentially, become adults. If you guessed Millennials you'd be correct. However, if you guessed Generation X or Generation Y, you'd also be correct. The shift to delayed adulthood has been going on for three generations, yet recent stories in the media would have you believe this is just a recent phenomenon.

The delayed transition to adulthood is not just a result of the economic recession. The Macarthur Foundation's Transition to Adulthood arm in 2002 released data showing that young adults in the year 2000 were about half as likely to have reached traditional adulthood milestones -- such as financial independence -- compared with young adults in the year 1960. Frank Furstenburg, the lead author of that 2002 study, noted that the "primary reason for prolonged adulthood is that it now takes much longer to secure a full-time job that pays enough to support a family."

Millennials may have certain characteristics that make them unique. They are perhaps more accepting of individual differences than past generations; they are also said to be more likely than other generations to have tattoos.

Sometimes I wonder, however, how much the characteristics associated with Millennials are really particular to generational generalizations, or more generally true about a certain decade of life: the transformative twentysomething years.

I wrote about the transition to adulthood after I graduated from college in 1997. The book which I co-authored, Quarterlife Crisis, became a bestseller when it was released in 2001 because so many twentysomethings related to the challenges that were described in the book. We had been led to believe that after graduation we could expect the easiest, most carefree time in our lives, but in fact we felt overwhelmed by the multitude of decisions we had to make, and by the new responsibilities we had to assume. We were not facing an economic recession in the late 90s, but still it was not easy for any graduate to establish himself or herself after college. Back then I would hear the same statistic cited that I hear now: young adults would, on average, change jobs eight times before the age of 32.

The job-hopping and searching for one's "passion" are not results of the economic downturn, nor are they phenomena peculiar to Millennials. It is true that a typical career pattern today is far different than it was in generations past, when a person was likely to stick with the same job for 40 years, but this change has been evolving for quite some time.

Similarly, the phenomenon of living with one's parents as a twentysomething is not new, and it is not simply a consequence of the recession. The book Boomerang Nation in 2005 documented the trend of young adults living with their parents, and recent articles have identified the continuation of this trend as a new phenomenon directly resulting from the economy. The recession may have exacerbated this trend, but it's been on the rise - along with tuition and student debt - for quite some time.

Even before the recession, before Millennials graduated from college wanting to change the world, the transition to adulthood became increasingly complex and prolonged. Twentysomethings since the Boomer Generation have been making cautious decisions in the hope of avoiding midlife crises. They are taking their time, waiting to settle down with just the right job and just the right partner. Since they are graduating with considerable debt, they are depending on their parents financially for longer. It may be more difficult to find a job or deal with debt now than in the past because of the economic downturn. However this pattern is not a result of the recession alone. Rather, the root cause my lie in a growing distance between antiquated education systems and changing workforce demands.

I'm amazed at how often I see articles describing this "new" phenomenon, the quarterlife crisis. I'm amazed at how often the same exact statistics are used to characterize the transition to adulthood today as were used to describe the transition of twentysomethings ten or more years ago, as if it's news.

Rather than immediately blame the economy or any generational characteristics for recent college graduates' unemployment, debt, and other challenges as they transition to adulthood, it would make more sense to look at the trends in transitional patterns over time. Only then can we get to the real problem. Or maybe it's not a problem. Maybe it simply takes longer today to become settled as an adult, and we are living longer, so we have more time to get settled. As long as Mom and Dad don't mind paying the rent for a while.