Flickr image: Scarleth White
Generations are social constructs. There is no chemical or biological difference between Gen-Xers and Millennials, but we talk about them as if they were different species. That Gen-Xers grew up "independent" and Millennials grew up "entitled" aren't anthropological observations. Rather, they're marginally useful stereotypes. If it's true that members of a certain age group have commonalities that they don't fully share with older or younger groups, this isn't the result of generational determinism. It's just circumstance.
The circumstances surrounding the Millennial generation are particularly strange. Many came of age in the longest economic expansion of the 20th century and graduated into the worst recession since the 1930s. The abrupt contraction of opportunity has left a mark. Unemployment among 18- to 24-year-olds was 16% in 2011, twice as high as the national average. Median earnings fell more for the young than any other cohort, and college debt, most of which is held by 20-somethings, is at an all-time high.
With education comes opportunity. That's the deal, as this generation understood it. Now, they're the highest-educated generation in American history, and they've graduated into ... this.
When adults wonder what's the matter with the Millennial generation that has increasingly chosen to live with their parents and put off marriage and homeownership, the first thing to say is that they're using the word "chosen" wrong. Nobody chose this. The economy chose for them.
In August 2010, Robin Marantz Henig observed in New York Times Magazine that Generation Y (the Millennials) has pushed back each of the five milestones of adulthood: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having a kid. Why won't Millennials grow up? she wondered.
The biggest reason is they can't, according to the Pew Research Center's fantastic new survey "Young, Underemployed, and Optimistic." It begins with school.
The good news is that more young adults are enrolled in school than ever. The share of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled has increased by 50% since 1990. That's awesome. Less awesome is that the cost of college is rising, too. Average debt for public college students doubled between 1996 and 2006. It's less advisable to invest in marriage with $30,000 in student debt as a couple. "More than one-in-five young adults ages 18 to 34 (22%) say they have postponed having a baby because of the bad economy," Pew reported. "Roughly the same proportion say they have postponed getting married."
If school years delayed financial independence, the Great Recession just about shattered it. Due to economic conditions, 24% of young adults have moved back in with their parents for a significant period of time. "Among those ages 25 to 29, the share moving back home rises to 34%," Pew reports. One in three!
The new economic reality is changing the way we think about adulthood. It's not that adulthood has changed, necessarily, but that the road to financial independence is getting longer and more fraught. In 1993, a Newsweek poll found that 80% of parents said their young children should be financially independent by 22. Now that up to one-third of those very same parents are still living with their kids, one-third of today's parents say children "shouldn't have to be on their own financially until age 25 or later."
Many in this "boomerang" generation that leaves the nest only to fly back home for their 20s are still in school. But many actually have jobs that just don't pay enough to make an independent life affordable or desirable given the overhang of debt and the option to live at home.
The years between 2007 and 2011 weren't good for any generation. The pain of the Great Recession didn't discriminate by age. But the hardest hit in terms of pay were the youngest. Their median weekly earnings fell 6% in those four years, considerably worse than any other group. Meanwhile, the cost of college tripled since 1980.
Some people liken a career path to a staircase. One group ascends through college and steps off into an entry level position, only to clear the way for the next group to ascend and disembark into the labor force. But the staircase has changed. The burden of climbing has increased. The rewards have declined.
BLAME THE KIDS?
What makes Generation Y different from all other generations? They're getting married later. They're having babies later. They're buying fewer homes, and living with their parents. Are they scared of adulthood? Maybe. Culture is complicated, and there are plenty of factors outside of the Great Recession that are shaping Millennials' conception of adulthood and family life. But it certainly seems like the story begins with economics.
Consider the declining appeal of homeownership. The idea that a couple should participate in an ownership society by buying a home has dissolved. Just 12% of whites between 18 and 34 told Pew that owning a home was "one of the most important things" in their life. In a nation where homeownership rates peaked at 67% just seven years ago, that's a remarkable shift in expectations. And what is the declining appeal of a massive mortgage if not the natural result of an economy that has stiff-armed millions of young students, stuck them with thousands in debt, and forced up to one-third of them into living with their parents when they expected to be cultivating a career?
Adulthood has probably been delayed, permanently, for better or worse. It's not just the recession, which has interrupted plans for financial independence. It's young people who have delayed plans for their own financial independence, by going to school. Every year, more twentysomethings are graduating from college than the year before. We should celebrate this, mostly. College debt might be the best investment in the world. But with more twentysomethings in school, fewer people in their early 20s will be getting married, buying houses, or having children. This the logical result of our choices. Blame the Great Recession for delaying adulthood for millions of Millennials. But "blame" the Millennials, too.