Politics,

Why Can’t Millennials Grow Up?

Jennifer Silva
Professor Arnett and I both agree that the road to adulthood simply isn’t what it used to be; indeed, what we think of as “traditional adulthood”‒leaving home, finishing school, getting a stable job, getting married, and starting a family‒has become increasingly delayed, disorderly, and reversible over the past several decades. What happens during those years, if young men and women are not getting jobs and starting families, is one of the driving questions of our research (and Prof. Arnett’s work was a big inspiration for my own work). For Arnett, this new life phase, emerging adulthood, represents a period of exploration, self-focus, and preparation for young people. Emerging adulthood is a precursor for the “real” adulthood that follows‒there is the expectation that people will eventually settle down and assume more or less traditional adult roles (e.g., husband, wife, worker, parent).

My own work suggests that emerging adulthood is experienced very differently depending on the social background‒and structure of opportunity available‒to the young person in question. The freedom to delay marriage and childbearing, experiment with flexible career paths, and pursue higher education has granted many contemporary young adults the luxury to define what it means to be an adult on their own terms; for this group, emerging adulthood may be a time of optimism, of exploring potential identities and pathways before they settle down. Privileged young adults may delay adulthood to backpack through Southeast Asia or take an unpaid internship in the field of their dreams, or may simply live with their parents’ longer so save money for school or a home.

Yet inequality is increasing in America, not only of income and wealth, but of knowledge, commitment, trust, and opportunity. For working-class men and women, who grow up without the knowledge, skills, and parental resources to navigate a world of disappearing jobs, soaring education costs, shrinking social support networks, and fragile families, emerging adulthood means coming to terms with the absence of choice. Whether bouncing from one temporary job to the next, dropping out of college because they can’t figure out financial aid forms or choose a major, relying on their credit cards for medical emergencies, or avoiding romantic commitments because they can only take care of themselves, working-class men and women experience bewilderment, distrust, and powerlessness as they come of age. Simply put, this group can’t grow up‒not now, and probably not in the future either, if growing up means settling down into lasting jobs and families, or finishing college, or even buying and keeping a home.

My work dovetails with Arnett’s in that the working-class youth I studied emphasize adulthood as an individual endeavor. But their stories of self-exploration are born of insecurity, not options. The men and women I spoke with cannot point to a promotion, a diploma on the wall, or a wedding band on their finger to mark their progress through life. Instead, it is up to them to redefine the contours of a meaningful adult life. Rather than turn to politics to address the obstacles standing in their way, many crafted deeply personal coming of age stories, grounding their adult identities in recovering from their painful pasts‒whether addictions, childhood abuse, family trauma, or abandonment‒and forging an independent, transformed adult self. These new definitions of adulthood stem from a larger cultural discourse on economic self-reliance and emotional self-help. They make a virtue out of focusing on self-growth because they can’t expect traditional markers of adulthood to ever be possible in their lives‒even as they mourn the loss of lasting jobs and lasting social ties.

As the markers of adulthood of older generations slip through their fingers, the young men and woman I spoke with are working hard to remake adulthood in terms of emotional self-growth. This deeply personal approach lends a sense of progress and meaning to otherwise unsatisfactory lives. But there is also a darker side to this emerging adulthood, one that leads them to take sole responsibility for their own emotional states. Kelly, a twenty-eight year old line cook who has lived on and off in her car while battling depression, declared, “When I start feeling helpless, I just have to make a conscious decision to not feel that way. There’s just no other choice. No one else is going to fix me but me.” Emerging adulthood is thus not a time of optimism because the world that awaits them is full of choices; it is a time of making the best of their circumstances and willing themselves to fix their lives. If we accept this period as a life phase without changing the lack of opportunity that underlies it, then we leave these working-class young men and women to a life of constantly seeking self-improvement in a world that doesn’t want to give it.

Jeffrey Arnett
Why haven’t millennials grown up? Well, assuming by “millennials” we mean young people in their twenties today, there are lots of reasons. One is economic. We’ve shifted in the past 50 years from a manufacturing economy toward more of an information, technology, and services economy. More people get more education, for longer, than ever before, and that means it takes them longer to enter the labor force full time and “grow up” in that sense. Even when they start working, they start at the bottom, and in this economy that means not making much money, especially if you don’t have a college degree. So that means it takes a long time to make money to live independently and “grow up” in that sense.

But there’s more to the longer road to adulthood than just economics. Three changes in 1960s and 1970s changed the shape of youth as it is experienced today. The Sexual Revolution broke the traditional link between sexuality and marriage, leading to widespread cohabitation and later timing of marriage and parenthood. The Women’s Movement led to more opportunities for young women in the workplace, relieving the social pressure on them to find a husband as soon as possible or be relegated to the dreaded status of “old maid.” And the Youth Movement exalted youth and denigrated maturity and aging, which made young people want to extend the time before they committed themselves to adult roles.

Put all these changes together, and what you have is a new life stage between adolescence and young adulthood, which I call “emerging adulthood,” lasting from the late teens to the late twenties. I think it’s better to think of the changes in young people’s lives as the rise of this new life stage, rather than measuring them by an outdated timetable and finding them to be late in growing up.

Jennifer Silva
I agree that there is something new for all young adults‒the freedom to choose whether you want to get married or not, whom you want to partner with, whether you want to have kids and when…this is different from previous generations. But I would argue that the ability to act upon this freedom is very much limited to young people from privileged backgrounds. So gender doesn’t predict life chances as much as it used to, but social class background does.

Jeffrey Arnett
I see it a bit differently. I would agree that there are stark social class differences in access to higher education (although I think it’s important to recognize the there are hundreds of community colleges that are virtually free). However, I’m not sure why Jennifer would say that the freedom to have kids depends on social class. It’s pretty easy, actually! As for getting married, I understand the sociological argument that marriage depends on social class and that young people from lower social classes are less likely to marry because they can’t afford to, but I’ve always been skeptical. In a way, marriage would make more sense for people from lower social classes, because it would allow them the opportunity to combine their limited resources.

I agree, we need to get a lot better at providing young people with information and assistance to navigate the post-secondary education and training system. Many of them are the first in their family even to think about college; many of them are from immigrant families in which the parents do not know the slightest thing about the American system. But I wonder if Jennifer would agree that there are many, many resources available to emerging adults from lower class backgrounds, if they can learn how to find them. Colleges and universities are generally eager to find and help such students, and there are many federal and private programs as well.

Jennifer Silva
I think that a big problem for working-class young people is lack of know-how and social ties. Most young people from disadvantaged or even middle-class backgrounds now want to go to college. But far less actually enroll or graduate because the steps they need to take – taking the right high school classes, taking SATs, participating in sports or activities, getting financial aid – are very confusing. The growing competitiveness, cost, and complexity of the higher education system has made it increasingly difficult for young people to navigate the system, earn a degree, and get a white collar job. Even knowing how to fill out the financial aid forms if your parents can’t help you can be a barrier for working-class youth. So even if the opportunity is there, the know-how is lacking. That can make it feel like it is impossible to finish school and “grow up. And once they get there, they are even less prepared for this new world of college, and often have no idea how to choose a major and then use that major for a job. More privileged kids can draw on their family connections, their private college coach, or their college fund. But we have a whole group of working-class emerging adults who need guidance. And who also need jobs.

Jeffrey Arnett
I agree. It’s also important to mention that not everyone wants to go to college or would be well-served by going. We need to get a lot better, as a society, at providing other kinds of workplace training, and making those options available as well. I’ve interviewed many emerging adults who always hated school and couldn’t wait to get out. They wouldn’t want to go back if it meant reading Beowulf and such, even if it were free. There are many good ways to make a living that don’t require college, e.g., electrician, computer programming.

Jennifer Silva
Yes, vocational training would be a great start, as this college for all push leaves many emerging adults in and out of college, accruing debt, with no idea what they will do with it. But back to the marriage question. The men and women I interviewed for the most part liked the idea of settling down with someone. But they felt like they were not ready to make that commitment – for men, being a man meant being able to pay the bills, and women didn’t see the point of being with someone if they had to sacrifice their independence. So kids end up happening before marriage – they become a symbol of adulthood when other kinds of markers are not available. Have you seen this in your work, Jeff?

Jeffrey Arnett
I’ve seen this, yes, but it’s often less planful than what you describe. By and large, young people in their late teens and early twenties don’t plan to have a child outside of marriage, after weighing their options carefully and deciding that now is as good a time as any, because their options are so limited. More often, they have kids outside of marriage because they are sexually active but careless about contraception, and they believe abortion is wrong. But having a kid at a young age outside is usually a disaster, for mother and child (dad rarely stays around long). For kids, it raises the risk of all kinds of future problems. For moms, it becomes extremely difficult for them to make educational or occupational progress. Mostly, they value their kids and feel like their kids added meaning and structure to their lives, and made them take responsibility and become adults to handle the challenges of parenting. But everyone involved would be a lot better off if the birth came later, in the late twenties or early thirties. We need better contraceptive access and information, for young people across social classes. They are often remarkably ignorant about their own biology.

Jennifer Silva
Yes, when I asked one young woman if she planned to have a baby, she replied, “who plans for that?” But of course college-educated people do plan for it, while less educated people are less likely to have the knowledge and tools and money for long-term planning. What is interesting I think is that a few generations ago, unplanned pregnancy would have resulted in a shotgun marriage – and of course we don’t want to go back to that. But today, accidental pregnancy means that working-class women end up as single mothers, or in and out of unstable relationships. There is no sense of ever being able to “settle down” into adulthood with one partner. But even if they are not planned, I see that kids do become a symbol of having accomplished something, of having made progress. Which can be problematic when we don’t have a lot of support for lower-income families.

Jeffrey Arnett
Do you agree that religion plays a role? I think young people from lower social classes are more likely to be strongly and conservatively religious. So, when they get pregnant, they are extremely reluctant to abort. Young women in the middle class also have unintended pregnancies, but when they do, they are more likely to abort, partly because they want to preserve their educational and occupational options, but also because they are less likely to have religious beliefs that would prohibit them from doing so.

Jennifer Silva
That is an interesting question. National trend data show that young working-class people are less involved in churches than they used to be and than their middle-class peers. So they are not involved in a way that gives them much of a community or help figuring out their futures! But I do see a strong belief that they should keep their kids. The baby is seen as a good thing they have done. This kind of brings us to the question of the self, and how people create lives that feel meaningful and forward-moving when there are not a lot of external signs of progress. I see a lot of young people focusing on working on their own emotional growth in these years.

Jeffrey Arnett
I’m glad you raised the question of emotional growth. In your book you describe at length how working class emerging adults now use this as their way of measuring their progress to adulthood. From your perspective, they resort to this because the old markers of adulthood, such as marriage and a stable job, are out of reach. But I’ve surveyed and interviewed emerging adults across social classes, and actually the new markers of adulthood are consistent across social classes: accepting responsibility for yourself, making independent decisions, and financial independence. These are the Big Three markers of adulthood, across many studies, by me and many others, with remarkable consistency. The first, accepting responsibility for yourself and making independent decisions, are markers that reflect emotional and psychological growth, but not just for working class emerging adults.

Jennifer Silva
But survey data tell us little or nothing about the meanings and consequences of accepting responsibility for yourself, making independent decisions, and financial independence within one’s everyday life. Accepting responsibility for yourself is a marker of adulthood for everyone; but what it means, where it comes from, and how it shapes future action may vary tremendously by context. For example, a working-class young man who felt betrayed by all of the institutions in his life (foster care, the military, school) told a story of accepting responsibility for himself because he had learned not to trust anyone. He learned that relying on others for big decisions would hurt him. I heard this over and over again. Sure, middle-class people also use these markers, but their journeys to adulthood are founded on entering into institution. They may claim responsibility and self-reliance, but they live their lives supported by institutions that will catch them when they fall. The survey data therefore mask really important divergences.

Jeffrey Arnett
Yes, I agree; that’s why I’ve always done lots of interviews to supplement my surveys. I mostly agree with you, but I’d be careful not to paint life for middle class emerging adults in a rosy hue. They struggle, too. Like those from the working class, many have experienced family disasters parental divorce, alcoholism, financial reversals, mental illness, physical illness, etc. So it’s not all sunny opportunities for them.

Jennifer Silva
It is true that all kids go through hard times growing up. But kids from more privileged backgrounds have more resources to help them through these hard times (such as counselors to help them when their parents get divorced, tutors to help with trouble in school, concerned community members to provide guidance and support) than working-class kids, who grow up more isolated and without many of these private resources. The experience of growing up for these working-class kids is chaotic and they learn not to trust people. Some of them never expect anything from their futures. Others slowly learn that their goals‒wearing a suit to work, owning a home, staying married‒are out of reach.

Jeffrey Arnett
Since this is supposed to be a debate, I’m glad we finally found an issue where we disagree! Yes, working class kids grow up with fewer resources than middle class kids, by definition. But what I have found, in twenty years of research, is that emerging adults are remarkably hopeful and optimistic, across social classes. Even though most of them struggle during their twenties—across social classes—they almost all believe brighter days are ahead. Last year I conducted a national survey of 18-29-year-olds, the Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults, and among the striking results was that 83% of them agreed that “At this time of my life, it still seems like anything is possible.” Similarly, 89% agreed that “I am confident that eventually I will get what I want out of life.” And there was no difference in responses by social class (as measured by mother’s education) on either question. So, Jennifer’s finding that the young people she interviewed are hopeless and have given up on achieving a good life does not apply to most other working class emerging adults. Perhaps because they are still young, they believe they have it in their power to make a good life for themselves, even if the deck is stacked against them. We should be heartened by this, because almost everyone gets knocked down by life multiple times from age 18 to 29—schools they didn’t get into, jobs they didn’t get or got fired from, people whom they loved who didn’t love them back. Their belief in a sunny future is what gives them the strength to get up again.

Jennifer Silva
I also found that the young people I interviewed “believe they have it in their power to make a good life for themselves, even if the deck is stacked against them.” But I don’t call that optimism. I don’t think there is anything strange about my sample, as Jeff implies; at this point, I have also interviewed hundreds of young working-class people and I hear over and over again that the future is in their hands. However, we should not celebrate this sense of self-reliance or take it as evidence that simply believing they will get back on their feet will somehow empower them to actually get a good job, stay married, or buy a house. Rather than label these young people as optimistic, I would say that they are making a virtue out of depending on themselves and believing they can turn their lives around because they have no other options or resources. They embrace a larger cultural discourse that tells us that we alone‒not the government, not our families, not our larger communities‒are responsible for our own fates.

Working-class young adults learn not to expect loyalty from their jobs or permanence from their relationships. They take risks, often without guidance from others and with imperfect knowledge, to try to create lives that feel stable and worthy. And when they fail, they must pick up the pieces on their own and start again. When jobs are short-term, families are fragile, institutions are bewildering, and trust is in short supply, taking sole responsibility for one’s own fate‒what we could call optimism‒lends a sense of control and meaning to one’s coming of age journey. Such belief in oneself proves a vital mechanism for coping with the chaos, hopelessness, and insecurity that threatens daily to strip their lives of dignity and order. In my interpretation, these young adults numb the ache of betrayal and the hunger for connection by reaching for images of themselves as masters of their own fates. But in doing so, they obscure the larger social forces‒the decline of good blue-collar jobs, the increasing costs of education, the privatization of risks, the growing gap between the haves and have-nots‒that works against them. Perhaps without this optimism, they might build communities of solidarity that demand better wages and bigger safety nets.

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