How Millennials' Long Road to Adulthood Is the New Normal


These days, the road to becoming an adult -- which, in the daydreams of many Millennials, includes identifying a suitable career path, finding the right marriage partner and potentially having children -- is a longer path than ever to walk down. “Millennials have been keeping their distance from [a] core institution of society -- marriage. Just 26% of this generation is married,” a recent study from Pew reports. “When they were the age that Millennials are now, 36% of Generation X, 48% of Baby Boomers and 65% of the members of the Silent Generation were married.” Jeffrey Arnett, a professor at Clark University and author of Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties, says this phenomenon in which the entry to adulthood takes longer is not just a characteristic of the 80 million Millennials who were born between the years 1980 and 1995 but is part of a larger, slow-moving, transformative change in American society. “There are higher levels of education, later marriages and later children, a waning taboo on co-habitation and a widening opportunity for young women,” says Arnett. “But this isn’t just generational. It’s been happening gradually for the last 20 years.” Millennials just happen to be of the age, which Arnett says is between 18-29, that is “emerging adulthood.” Dan Deutsch is a millennial and considered an emerging adult. But as a 24-year-old college graduate pursuing a Master’s in communications, he is not thinking about where he fits in demographically; he is just trying to figure out his next move.  He says he knows he is interested in non-profit marketing work, though he says he has not started looking for a defined career path just yet.

“I am applying to different types of jobs, and initially I was determined to get a job right after school. I wanted to move to another city, maybe Boston, and I was sure that I wasn’t going to move back in with my parents,” says Deutsch. “But with so many of my peers doing it, it wasn’t as uncomfortable as I thought.” Arnett says that on the whole, the U.S. is increasingly receptive to the idea that it takes longer to reach full adulthood than it did in the past. He points to a shifting economy, going from manufacturing to one more based on technology, where it takes an increased level of training and experience to get a decent long-term job. “Another reason for the longer entry into adulthood may be that American society has become more tolerant of young people using most of their twenties to make their way to adulthood at a gradual pace, and enjoy a period of fun and freedom before taking on the enduring responsibilities of adult life,” says Arnett’s latest report, entitled “Parents and Their Grown Kids.”   Moving through emerging adulthood involves becoming more independent from parents, Arnett says, though this age group still maintains a close relationship with their mothers and fathers.

More than half (56%) of parents surveyed say they are in contact with their grown-up kids “every day or almost every day” and that doesn’t decrease much as the kids get older: 50% are in daily contact with children ages 26-29.

“Overall, I think [starting later] is a mixed bag. It takes longer for them to contribute economically.... But waiting to choose a career or a partner or have a child – it can make you a better parent; more knowledgeable and patient and able to maintain healthier relationships."

- Professor Jeffrey Arnett

The close ties do not end there. There are also economic connections, with nearly half (44%) of parents saying they provide their 18-29 year olds with either “frequent support when needed” or “regular support for living expenses” Arnett says the frequent contact between parents and emerging adults allows them to stay emotionally connected even after the kids have moved out -- and with so much mobility, it’s ultimately a good thing to maintain a closeness, which he points out, is helped by the vast amount of technology available today.

“Most emerging adults have not yet found their ‘soul mate,’ and while they are still looking for a life partner, they rely on the connection to their parents as a source of support and nurturance,” the report says. Millennials, many of whom are emerging adults, do have serious financial burdens to deal with during their twenties and afterword. According to Pew, they are the first generation in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment than their two immediate predecessor generations at same stage of life.

“Even though they are the best- educated generation yet, they have a slower path. Slower to get to milestones of adulthood, and there are a lot of Millennials who are facing serious economics challenges with student debt or finding a job," says Paul Taylor, director of demographics at Pew.

However, even with 7 in 10 of Americans believing that today’s young adults face more economic hardships than their predecessors did at the same age, Pew reports that Millennials have the highest level of optimism out there. It finds that despite their financial problems, more than 8 in 10 say they currently have enough money to lead their lives or expect to have enough in the future.

This confidence is even more pronounced because more than half of Millennials do not believe there will be any money for them in the Social Security system by the time they are ready to retire.

“Overall, I think [starting later] is a mixed bag,” says Arnett. “It takes longer for them to contribute economically because it takes so long for them to enter stable career paths.  All that freedom can also be lonely at times. But waiting to choose a career or a partner or have a child – it can make you a better parent; more knowledgeable and patient and able to maintain healthier relationships….  Just overall, people make better life decisions after 30…. Who really knows themselves at 20, anyway?”