What Research on Millennials Misses

Millennial generation data doesn't show just how far the reality of our lives has deviated from the expectations that many of us were born into, and why it is now necessary to rethink the transition to adulthood.
07/02/2010 11:23am ET | Updated November 17, 2011
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A slew of research in recent months has been dedicated to understanding the prolonged adolescence that now characterizes young adulthood. A recent New York Times article reported that prestigious organizations and think tanks such as the Pew Research Center and Brookings Institution are exploring the phenomenon of delayed marriage and parenthood, while data collected by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood found that, on average, parents are providing roughly $38,000 in material assistance for offspring between the ages of 18 and 34.

As a childless renter in my late 20s, I respond to these findings with a resounding "duh."

The reasons for our delayed entrance into adulthood are myriad, and not altogether negative. Millennials -- and even more specifically women in this age group -- are taking longer to finish their education, which delays the milestones of marriage, children and financial independence. Combined with an abysmal economy and stalled entry-level job market, it's unsurprising that the traditional trappings of adulthood have become unattainable, and to some extent, undesirable. (If nothing else, we've surely learned the perils of staking our financial security on the oh-so-adult goal of home ownership).

But what the data doesn't show is just how far the reality of our lives has deviated from the expectations that many of us were born into, and why it is now necessary to rethink the transition to adulthood.

In the upper-middle class Midwestern suburban enclave where I was raised, the road to success was clearly laid out for us: study hard, fill our college applications with impressive extracurricular activities, gain acceptance into a brand-name university and the rest would work itself out. If the road to acquiring our own McMansions in some gated utopia proved bumpier than expected -- fraught with existential burn-outs, quarter life crises and disappointing starting salaries -- our parents were more than happy to do whatever it took to get us over the humps, including subsidizing apartments, graduate schooling, credit card bills and horizon-broadening backpacking trips through Europe and Asia.

"I'm going to pay them rent," a friend of mine told me a couple of years ago when she moved into a condo her parents had purchased in downtown Chicago after she graduated law school. "I mean, once I have job, obviously."

These measures were only meant to be temporary stopgap. And then of course came the recession, and the path that was supposed to lead to SUVs and fat IRAs hit a dead end. It's hard to imagine now when, or how, this parental co-dependency will end. It's simple supply and demand economics -- we demand, and they supply. But how long can we expect it to continue, particularly as the older members of this generation (myself included) inch closer to 30?

Part of the problem is that while the definition of young adulthood is rapidly shifting, public policy and the workplace culture are lagging behind. Many young adults are entering the workforce as interns, freelancers or part-time workers, and therefore aren't eligible for the benefits -- health care, jobless benefits and education subsidies -- available to full-time employees. New rules that allow young adults to stay on their parents' health insurance until age 26 is a start, but the skyrocketing costs of education leaves too many young people starting out mired in debt.

Millennials, and our parents, may also need to recalibrate our goals. If there has been one upside to Great Recession, it's that a number of young adults have responded to the challenges with a sense of optimism and adventure. Volunteer service programs like Teach for America and AmeriCorps are experiencing a windfall of applications. Others are using the time to explore opportunities outside of the U.S. One friend of mine moved with her husband to Taiwan after losing her job at a newspaper, and began freelancing as a travel writer. Other friends have taken jobs leading tour groups through Southeast Asia or teaching in South America. These experiences may prove more rewarding in the long run than starting the long slog up the corporate ladder at age 22.

It will take more than our signature optimism to pull us through, but for the entitlement generation, the shifting of our expectations could be an unintended legacy of this recession. Perhaps it will only stunt our emotional growth even further, but I have some hope that we may yet take something positive from the setbacks that have stalled our entry into adulthood. Perhaps we will ultimately develop the tools to create lives that are more sustainable, and less obsessed with hitting arbitrary cultural markers.

If that sounds childish, blame it on my generation.