A Millennial Redefinition of Adulthood

Monday, June 11, 2018
Catherine Morin

Are you wasting the most important decade of your life? Are you reaching 30, and realize you have not accomplished much? Many top psychologists warn today's 20-somethings to stop damaging their future career and relationships by treating critical years as “downtime”  before real life begins. Are their concerns well-founded? How do 20-somethings deal with the complexities of adulthood?

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You may have heard that since people are living longer, and establishing their careers, marrying and having kids later in life, “30 is the new 20.”  Many psychologists argue that this notion makes the twenties look like irrelevant downtime, while it is a crucial developmental period that comes only once.

Observing how 20-somethings face their passage into adulthood may help identify the root causes of these concerns.   

Today's 20-Somethings

Today's 20-somethings are part of the generational demographic cohort of millennials. Also known as Generation Y, this group follows Generation X. There are no precise dates for when the cohort starts or ends, but researchers typically use the early 1980s as starting birth years and the mid-1990s to early 2000s as ending birth years.

The term “millennial”  was introduced in 1987, around the time children born in 1982 were entering preschool. People realized they would be the first graduating class of 2000, the new millennium.

Millennials, currently numbered 71 million in the United States, are expected to overtake baby boomers as America's largest generation. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that millennials will surpass boomers in population in 2019 as their number grows to 73 million and boomers decline to 72 million.

The millennial generation continues to grow as young immigrants keep arriving in the country.

Although characteristics of millennials vary by region, depending on economic and social conditions, this cohort is generally marked by an increased familiarity with communications, media, and digital technologies.

Millennials are often cited as being more self-assured than previous generations and are recognized for their socially liberal views.

Most millennials were between the ages of 5 and 20 when the 9/11 terrorist attacks shook the American nation, and many were old enough to understand the historical significance of that event. Members of this generation also grew up in the shadow of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

While it is impossible to characterize a generation by making direct connections between worldviews and specific events, many millennials tend to say that the attacks and their complex aftermath represented a loss of innocence that changed their view of the world.

Many sociologists consider that those significant events sharpened broader political views among millennials, and contributed to the major polarization that defines the current political environment.

The historic 2008 election of President Barack Obama was another key moment in millennials' lives. “Most millennials were between 12 and 27 during the 2008 election, where the force of the youth vote became part of the political conversation and helped elect the first black president,” a 2018 Pew Research Center report states.

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Millennials are the most racially and ethnically diverse adult generation in United States' history, according to a 2017 GenForward survey. Members of this generation are recognized for their respect of different cultural perspectives and their openness to diversity.  

Millennials are also defined by their strong sense of community. It is extremely important for them to maintain a large circle of friends and to feel that they belong to a group. However, as the first generation that has always been connected by technology, their primary sense of community is online.

This leads to a significant amount of time spent in online networking. The 2016 Nielsen Social Media Report revealed that millennials spend six hours per week on social media.  Their online communities also take the form of content and knowledge sharing through video platforms like Youtube or blogging sites like Tumblr.

The period of general economic decline in world markets during the late 2000s and early 2010s, referred to as the Great Recession, has had a major impact on this generation because it has caused historically high levels of unemployment among young people. Some economists speculate about possible long-term social and economic damage to this generation.

A study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that only 40% of millennials identify with their generational title, compared to 79%  of those aged between 51 and 69 who consider themselves part of the baby boomers generation.

Many young adults want to avoid the term mostly because of the negative generalizations that are frequently applied to millennials in popular culture, like “narcissistic”,  “entitled” and “lazy.” A 2014 Reason-Rupe public opinion survey  even shows that 71% of American adults think that millennials are selfish.  

The most common stereotype about millennials is that they take more much more time than previous generations to settle down and that they delay the important rites of passage into adulthood.  

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While it may sound as a bold and unjustified statement, actual data supports this observation.

An analysis by real estate firm Trulia revealed that almost 40% of young Americans were living with their parents or other relatives in 2015. It is the largest percentage of young adults living at home since 1940.

As a result, there is less demand for housing than would be expected for millennials, who will soon represent the largest generation in American history. While the number of adults under age 30 has increased by 5 million since 2006, the number of households grew by only 200 000, according to a 2015 report by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.

A recent report from the Urban Institute suggests that many millennials will remain unmarried through age 40. The percentage of millennials marrying by that age will fall lower than for any previous generation, even in a scenario where marriage rates recover significantly.

The median age at first marriage in the United States is 27 for women and 29 for men. This is an increase of about 7 years since the 1960s.

The Peter Pan Generation

American Sociologist Kathleen Shaputis labeled millennials as the Peter Pan Generation, referring to their tendency to delay important milestones and live with their parents for longer periods.

In the classic children's story Peter Pan, that most people know from the Disney movie of the same name, writer J.M. Barrie referred to the protagonist as “the boy who wouldn't grow up.” Peter Pan spends his never-ending childhood living adventures without a care.   

In popular psychology, the Peter Pan syndrome is known as a disorder in which a person is unable to grow into maturity.

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Most millennials are, in fact, afraid of getting older. A 2016 research by Mintel revealed that 57% of American millennials are scared of aging.

Millennials are also more concerned about the passage of time than other generations. Around 62% of them take proactive measures to fight the mental and physical signs of aging, in comparison to about 50% of Generation X.

This fear may be the reason why so many young adults refuse to hit the milestones associated with adulthood.  

It is possible to think that the huge societal emphasis on youthfulness plays an important role in millennials' complex relationship with time. Today, life is represented as a downhill process that takes away people's mental sharpness, vitality, and looks.

In this youth-fixated, aesthetically obsessed culture, today's 20-somethings may think that they have little choice but to remain in a permanent state of adolescence.

Culture, from Oreo cereals to emoji tattoos and adult coloring books is also keeping millennials' youth alive. Some marketing campaigns specifically target “kidults,” adults with purchasing power who show buying habits that traditionally belonged to children or teenagers.   

For example, the brand Lego has been running a Lego for Men campaign for a few years to promote selected toys for adult fans, such as precise replicas of famous buildings or collections inspired by science fiction movies like Star Wars.

Image Credit: StarWars.com

It can also be assumed that the Internet emphasizes this culture of endless childhood, with people in their twenties and thirties posting about youthful activities on social media. According to Internet psychologist Graham Jones,  this “creates social pressure for more people in those age groups to do more of those youthful things.”

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A Wasted Decade?

“There's nothing worse than sitting across from a 35-year-old who's realizing they're never going to get the life they want.”  Clinical psychologist Meg Jay used these powerful words in her 2013 TED talk, “Why 30 Is not the new 20.” This provocative speech is possibly one of the most famous pieces of advice for today's 20-somethings.

Dr. Jay urges millennials to stop considering their twenties as throwaway years or as a prolonged adolescence. She asserts that the notion that 30 is the new 20 causes 20-somethings to become passive since they believe they have plenty of time to build their careers and find love later in life.

She thinks contemporary culture is to blame for the way a person's twenties are now perceived as downtime. “As a culture, we have trivialized what is actually the defining decade of adulthood, ” she says.

Image Credit: TED Blog

She states that 80% of life's defining moments happen by the time a person turns 35. She also highlights the importance for 20-somethings to establish a career plan, as the first ten years of someone's career have an exponential impact on how much money they will earn later in life.

Throughout her talk, Dr. Jay refers to some of her patients to illustrate her points. One of them, a woman named Emma, came to her at age 25 claiming she was having an identity crisis. Jay advised her to “forget about having an identity crisis and get some identity capital.” She considers that 20-somethings should focus on accomplishing things that will add value to who they are.

She firmly advises people to “claim their twenties”  by investing in who they want to be, expanding their inner circle and finding out quickly what kind of person they want to marry. Exploring new opportunities is great, but only if they count. Otherwise, 20-somethings are just procrastinating. “The time to start picking your family is now, ” she insists.

This TED talk provoked lively reactions. Less than a week after its first diffusion, it had nearly 600 000 views and almost 200 comments on TED.com alone. People of all ages wrote about the hope, confusion or fear that the talk brought up to them.

Some 20-somethings found this piece of advice extremely helpful. After watching the TED talk, 27-year-old Lizanne Van Vuuren decided to get serious about her athletic goals. Jay's speech inspired her to complete a Half Ironman in 2014. A year later, she even joined a charity crew that rowed across the Pacific Ocean.

She used to think that since people were marrying older and living longer, she would have plenty of time to accomplish something special later in life. Watching the TED talk made her realize that her twenties were actually the perfect time to get ready to achieve these particular goals.

However, many young people claimed that the talk puts pressure on an already stressed generation to find the right career and start thinking about marriage in next to no time. Some wrote that it can dishearten 30-somethings, making them feel like their most important years are over and that it is too late to get the life they want.

Since millennials are already afraid of getting older and preoccupied with the passing of time, it is possible to think that creating such a sense of urgency can only make them more anxious, and ultimately reinforce their desire to stay young.

In her 2015 book, Why Grow Up? Subversive thoughts for an Infantile Age, philosopher Susan Neiman makes the case that society wrongly defines growing up as a simple question of decline. She argues that people should stop associating getting older with giving up hopes and dreams.

Neiman thinks that with its celebration of young adulthood, society constantly presses upon 20-somethings the message that these are the best years of their lives. She insists that there is consistent evidence that most people are not happier in their twenties, and that the thirties usually bring more happiness and satisfaction.

“By describing what is usually the hardest time of one's life as the best one, we make the time harder for those who are going through it, ” she writes. Young adults who are stressed and frightened now probably wonder what they can expect of the times in their lives that, people say, will only get worse.  

“By describing life as a downhill process, we prepare young people to expect ─ and demand ─ very little from it, ” Neiman insists.

External Factors

In the current socio-economic climate, 30 being the new 20 can even be considered as a philosophy of survival rather than some excuse for putting off responsibilities.

Frank Furstenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that the transformation of the economy marked a fundamental change in the transition to adulthood from how it was 50 years ago.

Today, good-paying jobs require more education, and many positions that were held by high-school graduates a few decades ago now usually require a four-year college degree at a minimum.  “Those jobs where you could start at 18 and be making a decent income by 22 ─ they don’t exist anymore,” he says.

That can explain why the majority of 20-somethings no longer live in their own household as they did in the 1970s.

Furstenberg says that this phenomenon is not unprecedented. During the late 19th century, there was not a place on the job market for a lot of people as America went from an agricultural to an industrial society. That forced many young people to live with their parents longer. “It didn’t mean they didn’t, in some sense, assume the duties of adults,” Furstenberg states.

This suggests that millennials' current lifestyle is much more related to external factors than to specific personality traits.

A 2017 study from Merrill Edge also shows that the decisions to delay major milestone purchases like real estate are in direct response to the Great Recession. Head of Merrill Edge Aron Levine explains that most millennials saw their parents and their grandparents lose a lot of money during that time, and they want to be more cautious with their day-to-day finances.

The report suggests that millennials’ life choices, big investments, future earnings and entrance to adulthood have been shaped by this recession . For 78%, the recession was a factor in their decision to buy real estate. More than 50% of Millennials put off having children because of the financial crisis.

Redefining Perceptions

As lifespan increases and humans tend to live long and relatively healthy lives, our perceptions of youth and old age also evolve. Nowadays, a 30-year-old can reasonably be considered as young and in the prime of life. In this perspective, defining 30 as the new 20 might just be part of a natural process.

In order to achieve their full potential and build the life they want, millennials should avoid subscribing to society's eternal youth culture and, as Dr. Meg Jay puts it, “claim their twenties.” After playing such a big role in making society more inclusive and open to diversity, 20-somethings surely can fight ageist stereotypes that hinder their development.  

While there is an important case to be made for social reforms to make aging a more appetizing prospect,  the best way to thrive may be to focus on how each of us can get better at growing up based on our personal goals, priorities, and values.