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 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?
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.