Delayed adulthood: The Millennial falsehood

Millennials are the most diverse generation of adults to date. The traditional norms that may have governed our idea of adulthood, such as living away from family or marrying in our 20s, may be transitioning into something that more accurately reflects this generation.

Millennials are the most diverse generation of adults to date. The traditional norms that may have governed our idea of adulthood, such as living away from family or marrying in our 20s, may be transitioning into something that more accurately reflects this generation.

By Kassira Absar, Research Associate

Delayed adulthood

The Millennial falsehood

Hi. I’m a Millennial. We need to talk.

First, I’d like to acknowledge that every generation encounters unique challenges and progress, but there are some interesting differences between Millennials and earlier generations.

Second, there is a perception that Millennials choose to live in the more nebulous space between dependency and independence, resisting adulthood. I argue that Millennials are pushing back against the traditional norms and, in fact, redefining adulthood.

A recent U.S. Census Bureau report on the changing profile of young adulthood compares young adults (age 18-34) from 2016 to those from 1975. While today’s young adults consist of Millennials (though the definition seems to vary), young adults from 1975 were mostly Baby Boomers with a few from the preceding Silent Generation.

The report highlights some interesting differences, such as Millennials are: (1) more likely to be employed, largely because of the rapid growth of employment among women, (2) more likely to obtain higher levels of education, and (3) more ethnically and racially diverse than preceding generations.

Millennials are the most diverse generation of adults to date. The traditional norms that may have governed our idea of adulthood, such as living away from family or marrying in our 20s, may be transitioning into something that more accurately reflects this generation.

Women have experienced some of the greatest changes. According to the report, young women have propelled themselves into the labor force, with 70 percent age 25 to 34 employed in 2016 compared to 49 percent in 1975. And for the young women not in the labor force? In 1975, the reason was almost exclusively that they were staying home to care for family and the home. In 2016, roughly half the share of young women not in the labor force reported the same thing.

Today’s young women also have higher levels of educational attainment than men, are deferring homeownership, are earning more than they have in the past, and getting married and having kids later in life (if they choose those options at all). 

Differences among U.S. young women, 1975 vs. 2016

The seismic shift reflected in this report is only one small piece of what today’s young adults have experienced. Millennials have been raised in a world of rapid change—where the boundaries of technology, identity, and political engagement are fluid. Older Millennials like myself will remember writing multiple drafts of essays in cursive on actual paper, but also remember graduating high school excited to make their first Facebook account.

A Census Bureau summary of their young adult report also spoke to the advent of “emerging adulthood”—or what Millennials flippantly refer to as “adulting”—implying that Millennials are spending more time on the path to adulthood than at the destination itself: “One of the striking signs of delayed adulthood is the rising number of young adults who live in their parents’ home—now the most popular living arrangement for adults.”

Whether we are using the term “delayed” or “emerging,” the sentiment is the same.

Four milestones (expectations?) are used to define entry into adulthood: leaving home, marriage, parenthood, and employment. In 1975, 45 percent of young adults age 25 to 34 experienced all four milestones, dropping, unsurprisingly, to 24 percent in 2016.

This gets us to my second point: How should we interpret these changes?

Citing data from the General Social Survey, the Census report itself notes that the idea of adulthood is changing, and that over half of Americans do not feel marriage and parenthood are determinants of adulthood (emphasizing education and employment instead).

Let’s look more closely at living arrangements of young adults age 25 to 35, also known as “Older Millennials.” In 2016, 15 percent of Older Millennials were living with their parents, and, of these, 9 in 10 reported residing at that same address a year earlier. Both numbers were higher than reported by 25 to 35-year-olds of prior generations. Should we see this as a delay in adulthood? I would argue, no.

Older Millennials are haunted by the Great Recession, and many are pinned down by crippling debt. For many, the “decision” to live at home with parents instead of independently is the financially responsible and economically rational choice. This is also reflected in the various living arrangements that Millennials partake in.

Millennials are the most diverse generation of adults to date. The traditional norms that may have governed our idea of adulthood, such as living away from family or marrying in our 20s, may be transitioning into something that more accurately reflects this generation.  

Factors beyond age—such income, gender, racial or ethnic background—affect our agency and responsibilities. People of all ages are saddled with very adult responsibilities, such as caring for an ill or aging parent while simultaneously going to school or working.  One might say “adulthood” is tied more with responsibility than age.

We Millennials are a generation that challenges the traditional norms that define “adulthood.” Our ideals are rarely based on a single model of success.  In the name of research and comparable data, we must keep collecting data on life experiences to understand trends over time.

But where is the value in holding a diverse group of a people to a fixed definition of “adulthood” and judging their growth on it? What may be more valuable is opinion polling to help us understand how others perceive adulthood in conjunction with data on a variety of life experiences—not measuring the former by the latter.

At the end of the day, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from writing this piece, it’s this: if I am wrong and we Millennials truly are living in a period of “emerging adulthood,” Britney understood Millennials before we even understood ourselves.  

-Kassira (@Kassira_A)

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Gabriel Cortes