- Everyone says millennials are behind past generations, but a psychologist says this isn’t the case.
- Millennials have instead established new social norms of staying in school longer and marrying later.
- But that doesn’t mean millennials don’t feel that they’re behind.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
The tale of the financially burdened millennial is well known. Too bad it’s wrong.
It’s just not entirely accurate to add up all the generation’s economic woes – two recessions before the age of 40, a dismal job market for the oldest and layoffs and paycuts for the youngest, and a decade-long affordability crisis – and conclude that millennials have been left behind. Many journalists, this reporter included, have drawn that conclusion.
But after all, once a trend continues long enough, it stops being a temporary interruption and becomes a new normal.
Psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, who coined the term “emerging adulthood” to describe the period between adolescence and adulthood, told Insider that as millennials age, they’re redefining adulthood, too.
“They’re not behind,” he said of millennials. “This is the new normal, and we can’t measure them according to the yardstick of the 1960s.” Millennials have often been beaten with that yardstick, as they are later to major life events like homeownership and marriage than previous generations. They hold four times less US wealth than boomers held at their age, per Fed data.
Arnett been studying emerging adults since the early 1990s, when they were already being referred to as “behind,” he said, because they had begun staying in educational institutions longer and getting their first-time job later. “The norms that have changed are changing still,” he said. “Now, what’s normal is for people to stay in education or training until at least their early 20s and not in a marriage or parenthood until around age 30.”
A permanent shift
Societal expectations have really changed over time, seconded Clare Mehta, an associate professor of psychology at Emmanuel College who studies the period that comes after emerging adulthood: established adults between ages 30 to 45.
Past generations, she said, were expected to do it all by their mid- to late 20s: find a partner, get married, buy a house, have kids, and keep a stable job. Millennials, she told Insider, “have a lot more options and they don’t have to settle down quite as early as people in previous generations were expected to do.”
This is why there are more millennials still getting on their feet and trying to figure out what they want to do, she added. It’s also a result of steps toward gender equality. “Women want to have careers now before they settle down, people want to feel as though they’re financially secure,” Mehta said. “That wasn’t happening in the past.”
She added that they’re now finding fulfillment in building a professional life for themselves more so than they would have 50 years ago because they weren’t given the opportunity back then, and so they’re getting married and having kids at a later age.
Mehta said she thinks this shift will be a permanent one, especially with the increased use and acceptability of IVF enabling women to delay childbearing even further. “I don’t see it going back to how it was, and I see it shifting upward even further,” she said.
Millennials still feel behind
But changing societal norms don’t mean that millennials feel they’re doing everything right.
As Arnett noted, millennials feel like they’re behind because that’s what everybody keeps telling them and because things don’t always go according to plan, whether it’s the number of years it will take them to graduate or when they’ll find their soulmate.
Consider the many millennials who have long felt that they’re behind in homeownership because they didn’t achieve that milestone at the same age their parents did. Now that interest rates have dropped and suburbs have become more appealing during the pandemic, some millennials have finally cleared that hurdle, becoming homeowners for the first time.
At the same time, those still struggling during the pandemic likely feel further behind as they watch some of their luckier peers finally attain a sense of “adulthood.” Part of the new normal may therefore be an intragenerational adulthood gap.
“They have these goals and plans and then life happens,” he said. “Many feel like they’re behind and like they’re slipping because things aren’t going how they hoped. That feeling is even greater now in the pandemic.”
But pandemic or no pandemic, he said, it’s typical for young adults to struggle in their 20s as they figure out their identity and future. As Arnett previously told Insider, “Even in good times, young adults feel they’re falling behind and not making enough progress.”