The Perpetual Youth of America's Young (and What to Do About It)

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One criticism of Generation Y (aka Millennials; aka young adults born after 1980) is that they are ritualistically infantalized. Critics blame the trophy culture of elementary school, the coddling enshrined by parenting textbooks, the extra-historical boom times of the 1990s.

But as a great NYT piece from the weekend argues, the extended pre-adulthood of today's younger generation is a complicated result of variables ranging from stalled middle class salaries to a blossoming women's workforce. It takes two to start a family, and one of the certain trends of the last thirty years is that more young people, most notably women, are going to college and setting aside the settling down until their later 20s, or even 30s.

As our education creeps later in our 20s, two big things happen. First, marriages are delayed. In 1980, the median age for first marriages was 23; now it's about 27. Second, pre-professional lives are extended. More time in school means more time without a full-time job, which means more time living off your parents. The fraction of 25-year-old white men living at home rose from one-eighth in 1970 to one-fourth in 2007, and continues to grow in the recession.

Public policy is both leading and lagging in response to these demographic changes. The health care rule that keeps children up to age 26 to on their parents' health insurance reflects how extended pre-adulthood makes it difficult for young people to afford their own care. On the other hand, since it takes longer for young people to become financially independent, families that might have planned to financially spin off their kids by 22 now find themselves in a lengthy custodian role without much relief.

How can the government respond to that? It's a thorny, question but I can see at least two directions. First, the major expense of one's early twenties is education. Finding ways to make college more affordable -- by increasing Pell Grants, investing in community colleges and expanding vocational programs that provide an alternative to $40,000/yr schools -- would be a good start.

Second, a growing challenge to young people is securing full-time jobs out of school. The self-employed economy has been growing for a while -- between 1995 and 2005, the number of self-employed independent contractors grew by 27 percent to almost nine million workers -- and the recession has mainstreamed the part-time lifestyle: the number of people pushed under 35 hours a week reached 1.2 million in December 2009. The government does a bad job consistently measuring freelancers, interns, and the self-employed. These groups have formed a shadow workforce that often does not enjoy the same jobless benefits, health insurance subsidies, wage theft laws and other services and rules that protect full-time workers. The marginal workforce is becoming the mainstream, and the federal government needs to think about rules to recognize it.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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