THE BLOG
10/06/2015 01:51 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2016

Emerging Adulthood: The Two Most Important Words in Hiring and Parenting

A couple years ago, the senior staff to one of the top leaders of the Department of Defense asked me for the most important advice I could give them for attracting and retaining Millennials. I gave them two words: emerging adulthood.

Millennials make up 70 percent of their workforce, and most of them are going through a new life stage called emerging adulthood, which begins at 18 and ends around 27 years of age. It comes after adolescence and before early adulthood.

I told them that at least a few of their staff needed to become experts in this new life stage because half of what the older generations complain about Millennials are actually characteristics of this new life stage, rather than negative traits that Millennials will carry throughout their lives. But if they don't sort out the life stage from the generational characteristics, they'll watch their commanders drive the Millennials out of the military and never understand why.

I have thousands of conversations each year with people from older generations who are frustrated with the Millennials. A few of the most common complaints:

  • They can't look me in the eye, because they're glued to their phones.
  • Loyalty means nothing to them.
  • They don't know how to be respectful.
  • They're completely naïve about what organizations have to do to function.

  • If their ideas aren't implemented, they get bored and mentally check out.
  • They want everything handed to them. But what can you expect from a generation who grew up getting "participation trophies" in their sports?

Half of these are characteristics of emerging adulthood and not characteristics of any one generation, but most people have never heard of it so they don't know which is which. In my speeches, I often ask the audience to raise their hands if they've heard of emerging adulthood. Maybe 2 percent of the hands go up.

This generational ignorance leads to a host of problems at work and home.

The Information Economy -- not the Slow Economy -- Delayed Early Adulthood

Emerging adulthood, which has only been formally identified in the last decade, actually started with the Baby Boomers. They delayed official adulthood with four years of college before they were expected to settle down and shoulder the responsibilities of full-on adulthood. Generation X extended this post-adolescence "transition time" because they married later, a result of both a volatile job market and competitive pressures to attend grad school in many careers.

But Millennials have further postponed the five markers of adulthood (marriage, full-time work, financial independence, home ownership, and parenting). The average age of marriage for a Millennial man is 27 years and 7 months. The reason for this is simple: the recession made young marriage a financial struggle for this generation.

Additionally, many jobs now require advanced education, or years of what is in actuality an apprenticeship, before the newest generation in the workforce is given significant responsibility. In many organizations, it's tough to climb the ladder high enough to make "grown up money" before the age of 30 today.

As a result, emerging adulthood is a time characterized by change, self-exploration, identity experimentation, and most of all, freedom. What employers call disloyal and unstable behavior, Millennials cherish as their time to try on different jobs (even different careers), and certainly different locations. But it's not only the workplace that gets frustrated with emerging adulthood.

An Age of Discovery that Frustrates Parents

I know a woman who decided to join AmeriCorps after she got out of college. But her dad wanted her to go straight to work, and made this clear by leaving job postings from the newspaper on her pillow. Today, she has a great job that she loves and excels at, so I'm sure that her dad is not as stressed these days. But looking back on her time with the service organization, she wouldn't change a thing. "When would I ever get to do something like that again?" she says. And she's 100 percent right about that.

But to her father and many others of the Traditionalist and Baby Boomer generations, choices that delay beginning a career don't make sense. These generations looked for a job straight out of high school or college, because moving back home wasn't socially acceptable (or physically possible with Dad blocking the doorway).

It's not uncommon for twentysomethings to move to three or four different places, not because their careers require it (which was the primary cause for Boomer relocation), but because they yearn to experience new places, and quite simply, they can. Millennials move to see if the love relationship will work out with the person they met on eHarmony, or they join the Peace Corps. That willingness to try on different identities, to change, to pull up their shallow roots and replant themselves someplace else, drives older generations crazy. Millennials who have the ability to transform locations and jobs at the drop of a hat make them seem disloyal. But Millennials simply see these choices as a way to grasp opportunities that may never come again.

Life in the Basement

Finally, one of the great criticisms of the Millennials is that they leave college and return to their parents. At least a couple times a month a concerned parent asks me, "Why is my 25-year-old still living in our basement? I had a baby and a mortgage by the time I was 25."

If that's you, don't panic. Moving back home is so common today that it doesn't have the same stigma, so twentysomethings are trying on different identities before they settle down into their long-term love relationships and careers. Both of these are affected by the fact that job creation for Millennials is growing at a snail's pace. When you look at the economy that emerging aduIts are stepping into, it's predictable that one out of four have moved back home. Even more, twentysomethings today get along better with their parents than the Boomers and the Xers did at that age. While most of them would rather be on their own, living at home is certainly better than sharing an efficiency apartment with five other guys as the Baby Boomers did.Certainly, if your twentysomething refuses to work, pay rent, or pick up after themselves, then you don't have an emerging adulthood problem, you have an immaturity problem. But for most twentysomethings, it's the economic climate, rather than moral failure, that's driven millions of Millennials back home.

Whatever you do, don't blame frequent job changing, surprising job choices, and moving back home on the generation of Millennials. They're not the problem. It's the new life stage of emerging adulthood.

In my next post, I'll look at three more common criticisms of the Millennials that are actually a product of emerging adulthood.

Haydn Shaw is author of Sticking Points: How to Get Four Generations Working Together in the 12 Places They Come Apart. He has consulted with organizations regarding generations and leadership and is the creator of the bestselling workshop, "Leading Across Generations." He also speaks on his own and blogs about generations, leadership, change management, and teams at MyGenerationalCoach.com. Haydn writes more about emerging adulthood in his new book Generational IQ: Christianity Isn't Dying, the Millennials Aren't the Problem, and the Future Is Bright. For more information, visit ChristianityIsNotDying.com.