Those in the millennial generation, born between 1981 and 2000, now range from 13 to 34 years old. Not only are they the great bulk of high school and college students, they extend well beyond the age when Americans have generally been well established in life. Yet, as we have read, many now are not.
Aside from age, the three transitions most Americans have used to mark truly growing up have been getting married, moving away from parents, and working steadily at a full-time job. Although of course some never do all of these things, achieving any two of them has been for a century or longer a good indicator that someone is no longer a child or adolescent. So how quickly have recent generations been maturing?
As of the 1950s, half of women married by 20 and more than half of men by 23. From there, mean marriage ages for men increased, from 24.0 in 1975 to 24.8, 25.9, and 27.0 in 1980, 1985, and 1990 respectively. For women the age crept up to 21.9 in 1975, then grew to 22.7 in 1980, 24.0 in 1985, and 25.0 in 1990. By 2005, average marriage ages were 27.2 for men and 25.1 for women, which became 28 and 26 by 2009.
As for living with parents, in economically poor 1940, 63% of Americans aged 18 to 24 did, but by 1960 it had dropped to 42%. From 1977 through the 1980s the trend reversed, and more stayed longer. By 1994, 51% of men and 37% of women 20 to 24 lived with their parents, as did, in the mid-2000s 20% of 26-year-olds. As well, in the late 1990s almost 40% of young adults who had moved out returned for four months or more, and in 2010 the Great Recession alone had caused 10% of those under 35 who had left to move back in.
How about working full-time? It has been several decades since being able to start at a low-level position in a hierarchical company with hopes of working oneself up has been the norm for people out of high school or college. In fact, only half of people aged 18 to 29 had a full-time job of any kind in 2006, which fell to 41% by early 2010. The high school part-time job, which has often led to full-time work later, is fading away; the share of those 16 and 17 years old with work experience in the year plunged from 51.8% in 1987 to 28.5% in 2007. For the same years, ages 18 to 19 fell from 76.6% to 57.3%, and 20 to 24 from 85.5% to 76.6%.
So what is the connection between lower employment opportunities, later marriages, more time living with parents, and later independence in general? Younger adults with jobs have long tended to move out earlier. Opportunities for career positions, however modest, for young men were much greater in the 1950s and 1960s than since. The 1970s were not all bad recession years, but they may have seemed that way for graduates seeking entry-level career positions, as that market segment became flooded. The slackers of the 1990s were unemployed in large part to lack of opportunities instead of lack of ambition. With the Great Recession damaging younger workers disproportionately, positions offered to new college graduates dropped 28% from 2008 to 2010, and for the year ending February 2011, joblessness for graduates less than 25 years old averaged 9.5%. One 2013 study showed half of new and employed B.A.’s working jobs requiring no degree.
What can millennials do about their economic plight? Robert Nelson, of that generation himself, wrote an article last month in Salon, saying that what his cohort needed was to get involved more in the nuts and bolts of politics, and push for change through the electoral system. It is not enough to do symbolic things, since, as Nelson put it, “The Tea Party has had more of an impact on American politics than Occupy Wall Street, because they focused on winning victories in the political arena rather than just banging on drums in a park.” If there were more millennial candidates, with, for example, strong pro-jobs agendas, the generation might be able to improve its lot considerably.
People born in the 1980s and 1990s are not a group of shirkers. They have done what any other generation would have in similar circumstances – using the resources they can call upon, such as more affluent, more tolerant parents, to offset what they can’t get. Just as many potential young military heroes were not born between 1915 and 1925, millennials have largely been stopped by a lack of opportunities. We all choose from what life makes available to us, and the current generation of young adults has been the most affected by the permanent jobs crisis than any other. Before we make any negative generalizations about the millennial generation, we first need to understand that about them.