What's Really the Matter With 20-Somethings

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What is the deal with 20-somethings, these days? That's the question burning up the Internet and family room tables across the country since Robin Marantz Henig posed it in a mammoth New York Times Magazine article. In the last 30 years, Generation Y (or the Millennials) have pushed back each of the five milestones of adulthood: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child. We're not children, not yet adults, but rather in some Britney Spearsesque middle world of psychological development.

There are three levels to what author Henig calls "emerging adulthood." The first level is science and psychology: it's the idea that 20-somethings' brains and bodies might not be as grown up as we thought. The second level is today's culture: it's why Millennials, as opposed to all of history's young adults, are more likely to take time to "grow up." The third and final level is economic. The unemployment rate is 15.7 percent for workers aged 20 to 24. For 20-something African Americans and Hispanics without college degrees, that number is in the mid-20s. You can't become financially independent on food stamps.

The article mentions the bad economy only twice, both times by dismissing its impact ("it's a development that predates the current economic doldrums") to focus on developmental psychology. It's fine for the author Robin Marantz Henig to be more interested in science than economics.* But it's not fine for the Times Magazine to publish a frontpage story called "What Is It About 20-Somethings?" when "it" is still the economy, stupid.

First, where Henig is correct: the bad economy has accentuated certain trends in the workforce rather than created a new generational identity overnight. Some of us were already delaying marrying and moving back with our parents before the recession. But some of these trends have nothing to do with our brains and everything to do with how we've chosen to use them.

Women and College

In 1970, women accounted for 36 percent of college graduates. Today they account for the majority. College educated women marry later, have fewer children, and are less likely to view marriage as "financial security," according to a 2010 Wharton study [PDF]. You can't explain delayed marriages and older mothers without talking about college.

Student Debt

Student debt recently eclipsed total credit card in this country at $860 billion. Before the recession, in 2006, the average public college student owed $17,250 from loans, according to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. That number incredibly doubled from $8,000 in 1996. So put yourself in the shoes of a 22-year old from a relatively affluent family. You've graduated with $15,000 in debt, you can't find a job that pays more than $23,000 without benefits, and you don't hate your parents. Why wouldn't you live at home for a year?

Recession

Unemployment is 50 percent higher for 20-somethings than the general population. As National Journal's Ron Brownstein has said, a functioning economy works like an escalator. You step on at high school, ascend through college, and step off into a decent paying job. But today, the escalator is jammed at the top. Senior workers won't leave their jobs because the recession devastated their 401(k) plans. Middle workers can't get promotions. And graduating seniors get stuck. Large employers hired 42 percent fewer graduating students in 2009, according to a Michigan State University study. 

Something deeper is happening: it's the rise of a shadow job market without benefits or proper accounting. It's the emerging Freelancer Economy. Between 1995 and 2005, the number of self-employed independent contractors grew by 27 percent to almost 9 million workers. This phenomenon is especially prevalent in New York City, where self-employment accounted for two thirds of the job growth between 1975 and 2007, according to the Chicago Fed. Part-time jobs might be good for productivity and company output. But they come without health care or wage protection or the guarantee that they'll exist in a month. If we're moving slower toward adulthood, the economy is providing one hell of a headwind.

Half a century ago, it might have been normal to graduate from college (or not), marry in your lower 20s, have a kid, settle down at a nice firm, put in your 40 years and clock out with a good-looking pension. But that's not the world we live in. Horizontal mobility, part-time projects, rapidly changing jobs: this is the new normal. Maybe it's because we've been hopelessly coddled and our brains, with their flaccid synapses, have been massaged into thinking we could land our dream job at 23. Or! Maybe it's because the world changed, and it doesn't make sense to start a family at 24 in the shadow of $15,000 in debt with a thimbleful of jobs that don't provide health care or the promise of stability.

Henig's lengthy piece is impressive in its scope of developmental psychology and in its sensitivity to the question of whether 20-somethings need more help than we thought. Her concern is noted, and appreciated. But there are cultural and economic reasons why 20-somethings aren't growing up that have nothing to do with the pruning of our synapses. When people ask what's the matter with my generation, part of me wants to say: Have you seen the economy you created? What's the matter with yours?

But that's churlish. So instead, let's make a deal. Boomers, fix what you did to the country. And I promise you, the kids will be alright.

________

*By the same token, since I am more interested and versed in economic trends than developmental psychology, this analysis might make too much of the recession and too little of brain development.

Flickr image: Scarleth White.
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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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