Is it Time for Generation Y to “Grow Up?”

Taken from Rosetta Thurman: Empowering a New Generation of Leaders

Unlike the Fox 5 media meltdown, last week’s lengthy piece in the New York Times thoughtfully explores the complexities of being twentysomething in America. Instead of simply bashing us for being young and doing the things that young people do, the author posits that Generation Y is actually in a new life stage called “emerging adulthood.”

It’s happening all over, in all sorts of families, not just young people moving back home but also young people taking longer to reach adulthood overall. It’s a development that predates the current economic doldrums, and no one knows yet what the impact will be — on the prospects of the young men and women; on the parents on whom so many of them depend; on society, built on the expectation of an orderly progression in which kids finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and eventually retire to live on pensions supported by the next crop of kids who finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and on and on. The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain un tethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary (and often grueling) Teach for America jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life.

The traditional cycle has, indeed, gone off course, to the dismay of many in the older generation. But just because young people have decided to buck the so-called “orderly progression” of life events, doesn’t mean we don’t get to qualify for full adult status. What may have defined our parents, and even our parents’ parents, is not necessarily what defines us.

And what did define our parents exactly? What made them into adults? The author seems to equate adulthood with several forms of stability: living situation, job security and marital status.

The 20s are a black box, and there is a lot of churning in there. One-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year. Forty percent move back home with their parents at least once. They go through an average of seven jobs in their 20s, more job changes than in any other stretch. Two-thirds spend at least some time living with a romantic partner without being married. And marriage occurs later than ever. The median age at first marriage in the early 1970s, when the baby boomers were young, was 21 for women and 23 for men; by 2009 it had climbed to 26 for women and 28 for men, five years in a little more than a generation.

Now there is some truth there, at least for me. I usually move to a new apartment every year. I’ve already had five jobs and I’m only 27. I had to move back home with my mom in 2006 after breaking up with my live-in fiancé. (Ironically, that relationship ended because after we got engaged, he had demanded that I stay home and be a housewife after grad school instead of actually making use of my degree.) And I’m still single.

So yes, times are a’changing, but many behave as if all the changes are coming about all because of twentysomethings. It’s actually a combination of the evolving societal trends of both Baby Boomers and Generation X. Only 61% of Millennials grew up in a two-parent household, a smaller percentage than the three previous generations. Many of us didn’t even see marriage in our daily lives growing up. My mother and father were never married, which may be part of the reason why I never saw marriage as a top goal for my life. I always thought there were things that were more important to focus on as an adult.

But then again, what is adulthood? If it’s defined as going to college, finding a steady job, getting married, then having 2.5 kids and a station wagon, then my generation is way behind. Although we’re being hailed as the “most educated generation in American history,” only 21% of Millennials are married (half the percentage of our parents’ generation at the same ages).

Indeed, the author of the NYT article lays out the five milestones of adulthood as such:

1. Completing school
2. Leaving home
3. Becoming financially independent
4. Marrying
5. Having a child

To her credit, the author does acknowledge the fact that all young people don’t move toward adulthood at the same pace, sometimes by choice.

Kids don’t shuffle along in unison on the road to maturity. They slouch toward adulthood at an uneven, highly individual pace. Some never achieve all five milestones, including those who are single or childless by choice, or unable to marry even if they wanted to because they’re gay. Others reach the milestones completely out of order, advancing professionally before committing to a monogamous relationship, having children young and marrying later, leaving school to go to work and returning to school long after becoming financially secure.

Or maybe…young people just aren’t buying into this rigid model of adulthood.

What if young people are simply defining adulthood in a totally different way? What if we instead define adulthood as figuring out your purpose in life? Well, my friend, then that’s where you would see that Generation Y is way ahead of the game. My peers are all trying to find ways to be able to follow their dreams. We’re all seeking that sweet spot of doing what we love and getting paid for it, often flocking to nonprofits or startup companies. Millennials are looking for meaning in their careers, after having seen our parents work themselves to death, often unhappy with their jobs and rewarded with little promise of retirement, pensions or the ever-evolving Social Security. Why, even young lawyers are embracing their interest in public service.

And on the marriage front, more and more young women are delaying or forgoing marriage because, well, we can.

Marriage historian Stephanie Coontz, a professor at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., says with more options, women are delaying marriage to pursue education and find the man they really love. ”It’s only in the last 20 years that women have said they’d marry just for love,” says Coontz.

Add that to the fact that young people do, on the whole, have a lot more options than our parents did at our age. But it’s up to us to figure out which ones are best for us and when. And if we take a little longer to do that, so what? I think it’s more important that we make our own milestones, not these arbitrary ones that tell you nothing about how to find the joy and wonder in life. When are we supposed to figure out what really makes us happy?

So yes, I disagree with the idea of an “emerging adulthood” for twentysomethings. Instead, I believe we’re entering into a different kind of adulthood, one that’s different from our parents’ and one that we do, in fact get to define (and redefine) for ourselves.

– Written by Rosetta Thurman

Please visit Rosetta Thurman’s blog for many other informative and thought provoking posts on the next generation of leadership in the sector.

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