Why Millennials Can’t Grow Up

Today’s economic conditions are not just holding Millennials back. They are stratifying them, leading to unequal experiences within the generation as well as between it and other cohorts.

An illustration of two women with a downward arrow.
Adam Maida / The Atlantic / Getty

A few weeks ago, I met my first Millennial grandparent. I was interviewing a woman in her late 30s about President Joe Biden’s new child-tax-credit proposal, and she mentioned that it would benefit not just her two young kids but her older son’s kid too.

The incidental meeting was a reminder both that Millennials are getting older and that they are doing so without growing up, at least not in the way that many of them might wish. The woman I interviewed does not own a home, nor is she anywhere close to affording one. She has nothing in the way of savings. Nevertheless, she is a grandmother, catapulting into middle age.

Millennials, as just about everyone knows at this point, are a generation delayed. The pandemic recession has led not-so-young adults to put off having kids, buying a house, getting married, or investing in a car—yet again. But today’s economic conditions are not just holding Millennials back. They are stratifying them, leading to unequal experiences within the generation as well as between it and other cohorts.

Marriage is a prime example. Millennials are getting hitched later in life than people in prior generations did. The average age at first marriage has steadily climbed over the past half century, from 23 to 30 for men and from 21 to 28 for women. As a result, Millennials are less likely to be married than Gen Xers or Baby Boomers were when they were the same age; the marriage rate among young adults has fallen 14 percentage points since 1990.

But the rising average masks some growing variation in the Millennial experience. Millennials, in particular women, who have completed college are tending to get married older; many Millennials who did not attend or complete college are opting not to marry at all. Three decades ago, the marriage rate was above 60 percent for all adults older than 25. Now, it is roughly 65 percent for those with a college degree and 50 percent for those who finished only high school.

The same kind of trend is affecting childbearing. Data compiled by the economist Caitlin Myers and published in The New York Times shows a sharp parenthood bell curve in the 20th century: Women would start becoming mothers in their late teens and stop becoming mothers in their early 30s. Now that curve is flatter and wider, with two spikes: one around 20 and one around 30. Many more women are choosing to become parents in their late 30s and early 40s.

Location and educational attainment seem to be factors; many college-educated women in cities such as San Francisco are putting childbearing off, whereas many women who did not go to college and live in rural areas are still having kids in their early 20s. The generational gap will only widen as more Millennials have their first grandkids. Some are already grandparents; others are looking at a half-century wait. Overall, the average age at which people are becoming grandparents continues to rise.

In terms of income and, especially, wealth, Millennials as a class have fallen behind, accumulating billions and billions of dollars less in net worth than Gen Xers and Baby Boomers did at the same point in their lives. Data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis suggest that older Millennials have roughly 11 percent less wealth than expected, given rates of inflation, and may well be the first generation in modern life to end up poorer than their parents.

Less recognized is that Millennials are also experiencing great wealth stratification. The very wealthiest Millennials are doing better than people at the same age decades ago; Mark Zuckerberg is far richer than Bill Gates was when he was 36, for instance. The Millennial top 10 percent—who grew up in relatively wealthy families and went to selective colleges—are doing just fine. But poorer Millennials—particularly those without a college degree—remain far, far behind. The St. Louis Fed researchers found that the typical Millennial without a college degree has nearly 20 percent less wealth than would be expected.

The skew becomes even larger when comparing white Millennials with Black Millennials: This is a generation committed to racial equality, but not one manifesting it. Younger white families are roughly as wealthy now as young white families were a few decades ago. But Black Millennials are poorer, on average, their collective net worths trailing by half. Student-loan debt is a central reason: Black college attendees are more likely to take out loans than white attendees. They end up borrowing more money. And many struggle to pay it back, even with the earnings premium that comes with a college diploma.

In terms of homeownership, the same dynamics apply: Millennials lucky enough to have their Boomer parents’ help to go to college and scrape together a down payment have benefited from the dramatic run-up in housing prices. Millennials without that help, in many cases, remain shut out, pushing down the generation’s overall rate of homeownership.

Millennials are not just a generation delayed, but a generation for which the whole idea of a milestone, or a marker of adulthood, has become weirder and less exact. And the pandemic has only made things more tenuous and more stratified.