The new 20-somethings: Why won't they grow up?

They're unemployed, living with their parents and waiting longer to get married. What happened to young adulthood?

Published December 23, 2010 9:01PM (EST)

This is a difficult time to be a young adult in America. As one passage from the new book "Not Quite Adults," by Richard Settersten and Barbara Ray, aptly sums it up: "After two decades on Easy Street," they write, "young adults awoke in early 2009 to a new nickname, Generation R, for 'recession.' All too suddenly, the party was over and only the hangover lay ahead." As of April 2010, the unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds stood at 17.2 percent, nearly double the national average. One half of 18- to 24-year-olds have not left home, a 37 percent increase since 1970. And it’s not just the fresh-out-of-college set: 30 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds live with their parents.

With its telling subtitle: "Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing A Slower Path To Adulthood, And Why It’s Good for Everyone," Settersten and Ray's book gathers eight years of MacArthur Foundation research and hundreds of personal interviews  to take the pulse of America’s young adults. Yes, more of them are living at home, delaying other big-person milestones like marriage and child-rearing. But while they sleep in their childhood bedrooms, they are also paying off debt, experimenting with careers and preparing for the time when they are ready to leave the nest and enter a hyper-competitive economy that doesn’t take kindly to failings and missteps.

Barbara Ray spoke to Salon over the phone about the new realities of growing up, why a slow move towards adulthood is a good thing and why older people always think they had it harder.

There’s this traditional storyline young Americans are supposed to follow: graduate high school, move out, go to college and/or find a job, get married and have kids all before 25. That life-path is far from realistic for most 18-34 year-olds in 2010-11. What’s changed?

A lot of big social forces have conspired to make this path a lot slower and less direct than ever before. It used to be that young people did these things, in that order. Now, it’s much more meandering. The biggest reason for the slowdown is the job force has shifted a lot more dramatically in the last 25 years. We’ve moved to a knowledge-based economy and there’s a greater demand for higher education, but college is also an ill fit for a lot of young adults. They kind of flounder: 40 percent drop out. Those people move home, try to find a job, and just sort of go along trying to figure out what they are doing with their lives.

In terms of marriage, this is a generation of divorce. They saw their parents get divorced, which makes you think twice about marriage. and now you don’t have to get married right away or at all. People are creating independent lives before they get married, which wasn’t the case 25 years ago. Marriage has become this capstone after you do all the other things. There is much more thinking about ‘When am I ready to be married.’ And that’s a good thing. Studies show that these marriages are stronger. People who get married before 23 have a much higher rate of divorce.

Finally, parents have parented very differently. They’ve been much more involved in their children’s lives from the beginning, they are much closer to their children, and children are much closer to their parents. And it’s a great thing. The whole ‘quick out the door once you’re 18’ thing, you don’t have to do that anymore.

There is a lot of misunderstanding among older adults as to why young people aren’t maturing as quickly as they did.

Adulthood has slowed down not because kids are lazy or slackers or coddled as the media likes to portray, but because there are bigger social forces that have slowed their path. Young adults are thinking about what adulthood is in a different way. Those markers that we traditionally use to define adulthood don’t fit anymore. Young people are living strategically; when they are living at home, they are paying off debt, not rushing into marriage, finding a good fit in the job force. They feel independent. They are having their parents treat them like adults, paying their own phone bills, working. There are a lot of markers of adulthood today, but they are a little more subjective.

What about the "it’s a really tough job market," "jobs are so hard to come by" narrative that sort of explains away the inability for young adults to land lasting employment?

I wouldn’t say it’s explaining it away. It’s a very, very big reality. Even when you do have education and your foot in the door, those jobs are very, very up in the air. They are temporary, contract or part-time. Eighty percent of new jobs are contract jobs. We are in what I call a "Do It Yourself Economy." People are working part-time jobs, patching together a couple of jobs, doing work on the side and generally seeking alternatives to steady, stable employment. It’s really precarious, and that was before the recession. Now this generation is also competing with older workers who are holding on tighter to their positions. This generation is the First Hired, First Fired.

I just graduated from college and most of my friends are living at home. Though they aren’t on the surface happy to be at home, they are being productive and devoting themselves to interests they may not have had time for had they jumped straight into the traditional job market.

Our interviews for the book ended before the recession. But even before it happened, we noticed a lot of young people were seeking a work-life balance. Their parents were workaholics. Now, this generation is very committed to their communities, it is huge on volunteering, very into social justice and lots of other issues very close to their hearts, and young people are very active in pursuing those causes, even if that’s just online. I’m very inspired by this generation. It is doing a lot right. Work isn’t always everything. Maybe this recession will give everyone more balance.

However, there is a flip side. There is this sense that moving back home is a failing.

There are a lot of parents and young adults who feel like failures when the child moves back home. I hope this book helps parents and young adults see why the path to adulthood is slower and why it’s a good thing. I hope it helps them understand all those factors. It’s not bad parenting. It’s much bigger changes that have happened.

In the book, you talk about "job-shopping" and "job-hopping." What’s the difference?

Let’s take job-shopping: It’s done with a larger plan in mind. Every job change is an increase in salary or a move closer to your ultimate goal. Not necessarily a lateral move, but always up, either in money or in what you want to do.

Too many young adults don’t have the privilege of shopping because they bolted out the door too early or skipped education or foundered, and now they’re working a low paid job with no room for advancement. So they move, they go on to something else. It’s a hop.

Many young adults are stuck because the jobs that are out there have split into low-wage service sector jobs versus high-wage jobs that require lots of education. We don’t give a clear path to middle-tier jobs. Those pay well and don’t all require a four-year degree, but we don’t tell our kids how to get there. It’s a big area we overlook and we need to develop policy that points out those middle-tier jobs early on and how to get them.

You're either going to be very successful or you’re going to work a low-level job.

Yes, exactly. But those middle jobs are the fastest growing sector of the economy.

We’ve created what you call a "child-centric culture." Parents are investing so much into their children, which ties their sense of self-worth directly to the success or failure of their kids. How can we change this trend?

Parents feel if they don’t put their kids in a good school, get them involved with extracurricular activities, get them into a good college, that their kids will be left behind. It is like an arms race. We keep building up our arsenal and Russia keeps building theirs, it’s the same thing. Nobody wants to back away because of fear of annihilation. So parents spend a lot of time and a lot of money to keep their kids in the race. Parents have to ease up and stand down and say enough is enough. Someone has to be first and say, "This has gotten out of control."

Do you think every generation thinks that the generation that comes after them is slow to grow up? Do you think it’s true that there’s been this pattern of intergenerational judgment? If so, why?

Oh, yeah, definitely. When I was growing up, my dad would always say, "I used to walk 12 miles, now you get to ride to school." It happens whenever you have to go through something hard. You went through a hard experience, and you want to make the next generation experience hardship. ‘Kids these days,’ it’s a common refrain. Boomers, and I’m a boomer, rebelled against their parents, and here we are complaining about ‘kids these days.’

In interviews, you found that many parents, though they don’t readily admit it, actually benefit from having their kids live at home. Why isn’t that talked about as much?

There is still this cloud and guilt parents feel because their child moved home. No one wants to be up for judgment and say that they actually enjoy having their kid back at home. When I go to parties and I tell people what the book is about, someone will always say, ‘Well, my 21-year-old son is living at home, and I really enjoy having him there.’ And someone else will chime in and say that too. Once it’s OK, and it’s clear that it’s OK, they feel like they’re not judged. The social norms haven’t quite changed fully, yet.

A resounding theme in the book is the divergent early adulthood experiences of children from middle- and upper-class backgrounds versus their peers from working- and lower-class families. You say a lot of it has to do with the level of guidance that each group receives, particularly from their parents. Can you talk about that?

We obsess about helicopter parents, but we should be more concerned with the uninvolved parents. It’s so competitive out there, and kids need the guidance and support of their parents. There are the "school of hard-knocks" parents today, who say, "I want my kids to be independent." I understand where they’re coming from. It’s good to be independent and have that sense of adulthood, but there is a risk in rushing out and trying to become an adult too fast. Working-class parents are just as concerned as upper-class parents about the welfare of their kids and their futures, but they believe in the fast path because that’s how they came up. We should all think about what it takes to be a success today and how easy it is to be derailed.

Nearly half of the 3 million who enroll in college each year drop out. Yet the "College is the ticket" mantra persists. How can we work to get beyond that discourse?

By pointing out alternative paths and making them clear early. We’ve totally decimated our vocational schools. That’s wrong. We should elevate those jobs and make them easier to get to. An electrician who’s good at their job will make a lot of money. A health technician is in the same boat. They don’t require 4-year degrees. There are different paths where people are fulfilled and happy in their careers. If we provided clearer alternate paths earlier on, we’d be saving these young people a lot of time and money.

In the book you write about young adults who are either "swimmers" or "treaders." What's the difference between those two?

The majority of young adults are treaders -- treading water with low-wage jobs with no future and who are at risk of sinking. Swimmers are moving forward, albeit slowing. They are getting their ducks in a row but doing it right. I’d say it’s about 60-40 treaders to swimmers. It’s the fast starters, those who get out the gate quickly but start treading, that are most at risk. The economy isn’t there to support them.

What does it mean for our society that we have such a large number of young people struggling into adulthood?

One in 5 people 18 to 24 are in poverty, and that’s because they are living on their own. Thirty percent of young men with just a high school degree are idle -- not working, not looking for work -- what does that mean for the future? And that was before the recession.

We need to change the conversation. If we keep blaming parents and keep blaming young adults, we’re not going to make any progress. If so many young people are being left behind, the future isn’t very bright for them or the country. We’re seeing that a bit in Europe right now with the riots over tuition -- it’s just a tinderbox.

These are kind of warning signs. It’s a very different world. The economy is very competitive and too many people are being left behind. The critical question is, ‘How can we make this path more secure for more young people?’

By Michelle Fitzsimmons

Michelle Fitzsimmons is an editorial fellow at

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