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Why Generation Y Can't Grow Up: A Recession Tale

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Peter Pan was the boy who wouldn't grow up. We are the generation that can't.

The Great Recession took adulthood off the table for Millenials, as the post-college timeline is no longer predicated by age. Not that we are the first to live through economic instability, but we are the most educated generation to weather mass unemployment. Unlike our forefathers, we lack the necessary ability to work with our hands by carpentering dinner tables or plowing cornfields. Instead, enthusiastic graduates emerge fresh from four years of college, only to be turned away by every Tom's Shoes, Dick's Sporting Goods and Harry & David's Gourmet Gifts to which they apply. Suddenly, with no salary in sight, the economic downturn placed all major life decisions on indefinite suspension. Dejected degree wielders suddenly found themselves reapplying to part-time jobs they practiced every summer and spring break.

Turns out to be difficult to put a down payment on a house with the income of an Applebee's bartender. Forget rearing a child -- hourly wages of an IKEA associate barely pay for an ultrasound. Soon every team member of the food court Jamba Juice will be a Bachelor of the Arts. Many survive off of parental subsidies, their cell phone sitting on the AT&T Family Plan, their insurance bills footed when a cavity needs filling.

There are a few notable exceptions. If fellow Generation Y member Mark Zuckerberg maintains eternal adolescence, it will be at the hands of a pricey plastic surgeon, not lack of financial foundation. But according to a survey released in February by the Pew Research Center, 49 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds admitted to taking a job they didn't want just to pay the bills, and 35 percent said they have returned to school as a result of the poor economy. Unfortunately for the rest of us would-be entrepreneurs, Facebook can only be conceived once (unless, of course, you believe the plot of The Social Network).

All of my life I had abided by the age-old metrics of gauging life stage. At 16, I sat on a cracked leather ottoman in the DMV, waiting for my chance to prove that I knew how often to check the rearview mirror (every five seconds). At 21, I bought my first legal drink from the bar at Amalfi's Pizzeria: a blueberry kamikaze (I'm not proud of this). But a new car? Marriage? Fatherhood? TBD.

After college I heeded the advice of my professors and chose to prolong my schooling -- to ride out the poor economy while padding my resume with a master's degree from a prestigious university. Then I graduated from Northwestern with more than $50,000 in student loan debt on my back, only to be met with a barren desert of unemployment opportunities, forced to scavenge for small contract gigs.

Others cope by embracing la vie bohème. Consider: The barista loading your latte with extra whip may have authored a dissertation on phallic imagery in The Canterbury Tales to earn his English BA, but actually prefers the freedom of schedule afforded by brewing coffee over life as a desk jockey. Others appropriate the tepid job market into an opportunity to satiate their wanderlust, emptying savings into a backpacking trip from Madrid to Munich. Their diplomas now serving as paperweights and coffee coasters in hostels and studio apartments.

Some may call this lifestyle shortsighted. Unsustainable even. But I can guarantee our Depression-era ancestors, living in the cardboard boxes of their Hoovervilles, thought little past the evening's cabbage soup. And they were later deemed the "greatest generation." We live a blind carpe diem that avoids eye contact with tomorrow but with the future so precarious, and with no real choice in the matter, successes and failures are measured by the day. The key is to avoid becoming too comfortable in this extended adolescence. Like nomads, we migrate from experience to experience until finally finding the ground to settle.

So keep your cul-de-sac, your white picket fence. But could you pick up a 12-pack of PBR? I'm a little short on cash.

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