During the mid-twentieth century, the path to adulthood generally consisted of a common set of demographic milestones which included the completion of one’s education, entering into a full-time career, establishing an independent household (typically through marriage), and becoming a parent (Shanahan, 2000). While the majority of individuals express similar views on the importance of these adulthood events, typical milestones that were once considered universal, such as leaving the parental home and marrying before age 30, are increasingly delayed to later ages and may not occur at all (e.g., Census Bureau, 2004; Vespa, 2017). This has led some to describe recent cohorts of emerging adults as narcissistic and in need of trophies (e.g., Joiner, 2017; Pollak, 2016). This is an inaccurate and insulting characterization. Millennials are not any more narcissistic than previous generations (Donnellan, Trzesniewski, Robins, 2009; Roberts, Edmonds, & Grijalva, 2010; Trzesniewski, Donnellan, & Robins, 2008) and recent evidence suggests that they may even be less narcissistic than their predecessors (Wetzel et al., 2017). Furthermore, these criticisms fail to acknowledge the momentous challenges that are imposed on the recent cohorts of emerging adults who are expected to achieve independence within a fundamentally altered economic and social landscape.
A note about generational labels
The concept of generational labels entered into the public discourse after the surge in births following World War II (WWII) (Gerber et al., 1989), a significant demographic event (e.g., Colby & Ortman, 2014). While these labels are popular, there is no consensus on the specific period of years that define each generational category (Markert, 2012). Generations typically refer to groups of individuals who were born over a 15- to 20-year span, including well-known generational labels such as the Baby Boomer generation, Generation X (Gen X), and Millennials (or Gen Y) (Barrette & Montepare, 2015). These generational classifications are somewhat arbitrary and the groupings themselves are inconsistent, with some researchers defining generations spanning 17 or 18 years while others are defined as 15 years (Dimock, 2019). The Pew Research Center (referred to as the Pew, hereafter) defines the Baby Boom generation as spanning the years 1946 to 1964; Gen X as 1965 to 1980; Millennials as 1981 to 1996; and Gen Z or the iGeneration or post-Millennials as 1997 and after (Dimock, 2019). Notably, the Pew (2015) previously defined the Millennial generation as anyone who was born after 1980, thus some studies may utilize different definitions in their analyses.
Generational categories that typically span 15 years or more are less precise than 5-year cohorts (e.g., Marshall,1983; Cohen, 2019). Single-year age categories are the most precise but may not be the most useful, depending on the research question and available data. For example, Millennials widely differ from each other in terms of demographic patterns, such as fertility trends, employment rates, and marriage rates, depending on whether they were born in the 1980s or early 1990s (Cohen, 2019). Generational labels are also not very useful if researchers rely on self-report without knowing the person’s year of birth or age. A study by the Pew (2015) showed that many individuals do not correctly identify the generational label that applies to their birth year, and this finding was most prominent among the Silent Generation, which encompasses individuals born between the years 1928 and 1945, such that only 18% correctly identified their generational label. Millennials were the second most prominent group to report belonging to a different generation, with only 40% indicating the correct generational label. These findings suggest that these socially constructed labels are not all that useful for researchers and perhaps not all that informative for the general public, particularly if individuals do not know the definitions of these age categories. Moreover, these types of labels can result in broad overgeneralizations that impose negative characteristics or traits on individuals on the basis of stereotypes such as self-absorbed, greedy, and wasteful (e.g., Pew, 2015).
If you're wondering if I believe age categories matter at all, the answer is yes. Age is a key predictor of attitudes and behaviors, such as political participation (Bakker & de Vreese, 2011), consumption patterns (Holbrook & Schindler, 1994; Parment, 2013), and religiosity (Argue, Johnson, & White, 1999). I just prefer conceptualizing age categories as cohorts. The age of an individual determines their membership within a cohort, which consists of others who were born around a similar time. Sociologists, economists, and demographers generally use a person’s age to define and categorize 5-year birth cohorts or age cohorts (i.e., 1980-1984 as one group and 1985-1989 as another) to study demographic outcomes such as fertility and mortality rates ( e.g., Hobcraft, Menken, & Preston, 1985; Shryock et al., 1980). The concept of cohorts is still useful because the timing of one’s birth generally leads to a similar set of experiences that are shared across individuals who are of a similar age, as they transition through important milestones during a specific historical context (Elder Jr., 1985; Mannheim, 1956; Ryder, 1965).
The kids are not alright
While so-called millennial are often (mis)characterized as narcissistic, overindulgent, lazy, and fragile, there are alarming signs of serious afflictions that are plaguing young adults who were born during and after the 1980s. For example, numerous studies have shown an unprecedented rise in clinical mental health disorders among recent emerging adults. A study by Blue Cross Blue Shield (2020) found that major-depression diagnoses increased by 47% over the years 2014 to 2018 among young adults aged 23 to 37 in 2018. Individuals born in the 1980s are also substantially more likely to die by suicide and drug overdoses than their same-age counterparts born in the decade before them (Duggan & Li, 2019). This trend doesn't appear to stop with those who were born in the 1980s. The CDC has also found sharp increases in completed suicides among younger cohorts, showing a 76% increase in suicides among teens between ages 15 and 19 over the last ten years (Curtin & Heron, 2019). Looking at these mental health statistics, it's clear that emerging youth and adults are unquestionably suffering and it is high time that we as a society cast aside unproductive stereotypes and act to improve the lives of younger people.
What explains this growing epidemic of anxiety and depression among young adults and youth? I believe it is the combination of high expectations and chronic uncertainty. Instability has characterized every aspect of life for emerging adults, especially starting with those who were born in the 1980s. From the dissolution of their families, entire industries, and broader social safety nets, today's young adults have seen the risks that come with committed relationships and jobs, and these experiences have colored their worldview.
Family change. Individuals who were born in the 1980s were more likely to experience the dissolution of their parents’ relationship relative to generations preceding them (Kennedy & Ruggles, 2014; Robb, 2016). Some young adults have even experienced multiple family separations and lived in diverse blended families for their entire lives, which has been negatively associated with developmental outcomes including mental health (Amato, 2010; Cherlin, 2008; Fomby & Cherlin, 2007; Fomby & Osborne, 2016). Additionally, parental separation can have a lasting impact on how individuals approach their own romantic relationships such as feeling more cautious and cynical about marriage (Gerson, 2009). This doesn't necessarily mean that these young adults don't desire marriage, however. Instead, it may have raised the bar that individuals perceive that they must meet in order to establish a happy and successful marriage (Cherlin, 2004). While researchers will continue to debate the consequences of these trends on the future of marriage and family, I believe that it is reasonable for emerging adults to approach relationships and commitment with greater caution, given the uncertainty of the success of these partnerships and the devastating impact on their lives when they fail.
Economic inequality. Today’s young adults were also raised in a period of soaring economic inequality. Some industries that were once the backbone of the U.S. economy are now in decline, along with secure career opportunities that offer high-paying salaries and wages. These economic changes have had a devastating impact on those at the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, which is disproportionately characterized by individuals and families of color (Chetty et al., 2020; Piketty & Goldhammer, 2014). Individuals who were born in the 1980s also had the misfortune of entering the labor market during one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression. Researchers have found that it can take young adults who graduated during a recession nearly ten years to recover the loss of their initial wages (Orepoulos, von Wachter, & Heisz, 2012). That means the young adults who graduated during the Great Recession may have financially recovered just in time to get hit with another once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe: the COVID-19 global pandemic. While the pandemic has affected every person across the globe, young people are over-represented among the economic victims. A study conducted by Data for Progress (2020), for example, found that 52% of people under the age of 45 reported losing a job, being furloughed, or having their hours reduced, relative to 26% of individuals over the age of 45. Research by the Pew (2020) showed that 45% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 also had their wages reduced.
Unfortunately, the financial consequences of today's young adults' precarious economic positions were already evident before the onset of the pandemic. Individuals who were born during the 1980s earn lower average wages than their same-aged counterparts born in every decade before them dating back to the 1940s. For example, in 2010, nearly 50% of 30-year-olds reported earning more than their parents at the same age compared to over 90% of 30-year-olds in the 1970s (Cooper, 2016). A college degree does not explain the fall in wages. The wealth premium associated with earning a college degree is at historical lows. Even among privileged White households, the return on wealth from a college degree is statistically indistinguishable from zero. For racial and ethnic minorities born in the 1980s, this finding extends to postgraduate degrees as well. In other words, post graduate degrees do nothing to boost the wealth of racial and ethnic minorities. (Emmons, Kent, & Ricketts, 2019). Unsurprisingly, these trends have resulted in today's young adults accumulating less wealth than their parents when they were their same age (McKernan, Kenny, & Abare, 2017).
Today's young adults are not only earning less, they're also deeper in debt than their predecessors when they were the same age. A greater proportion of young adults reported having past-due medical bills than their adult counterparts who are over age 50 (McKernan, Kenny, & Abare, 2017). Think about that for a second, adults who are over age 50 are more likely to have health problems than young adults. What does it say about our system when healthy young adults are more likely to carry medical debt than the segment of our population that is using our health care system the most?
The other glaring source of debt is from student loans. The pressure to earn a postsecondary degree has also tethered nearly 45 million American households to student loan debt (Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 2017). The decision to finance a college degree has cascading consequences on future milestones. Research shows that student debt presents significant financial barriers to homeownership, the ability to live independently from parents, the timing of marriage, and parenthood (Addo, 2014; Bozick & Estacion, 2014; Dettling & Hsu, 2018; Gicheva, 2016; Mezza et al., 2020; Min & Taylor, 2018; Nau, Dwyer, & Hodson, 2015). Consequently, more young adults under age 35 live with their parents than in any other living arrangement (Fry, 2016; Vespa, 2017). This trend has accelerated since the onset of the global pandemic, surpassing the previous record that was set during the Great Depression (Fry, Passel, & Cohn, 2020).
To be clear, with regard to consequences of student debt and the falling return on investment from a college degree, I am not advocating that older adults and emerging adults disavow college entirely. I am simply recommending a thorough investigation of assumptions concerning the financial returns of a college degree, especially given that 40% of students drop out (e.g., Baum & Johnson, 2015; Huelsman, 2015; Kirp, 2019). These students will leave worse off than before they enrolled, especially if they are unable to secure jobs that will pay enough to cover the student debt that they accrued.
If today's youth seem emotionally broken and like they are falling behind, perhaps it is because of the decades of trends and policies that older generations help put into place. The growing emphasis on personal responsibility while dismantling social safety nets created precarious conditions for today's emerging adults who must contend with the consequences of two cataclysmic economic downturns, the existential threat of climate change, soaring healthcare costs, and political unrest. The cost of these disasters are compounded by systemic inequalities, which disproportionately impact women and racial and ethnic minorities, who often bear the greatest burden of contributing to society without compensation or recognition. This is unconscionable.
Narcissism and coddling is not to blame here. It is the woeful ignorance of previous generations. It's time to examine these unproductive criticisms and collectively act to support today's emerging adults and the generations that follow. Society as we know it, depends on it.