The media seems enthralled by the narrative that millennials just won’t grow up. But beyond the ever-shifting stereotypes about “kids these days,” there’s not much evidence to suggest the current crop of 20-somethings are all that different from their predecessors. (Photos courtesy of Generation Stuck)

In 1948, the poet Philip Larkin did something that today is rare for people in their mid-twenties: he left behind the “the slag / Of burnt-out childhood” and became an adult.

Rare, that is, according to the nation’s most authoritative media outlets – where journalists seem to be enthralled by people in their twenties who just won’t grow up.

There are many ways to fall short of the expectations of adulthood: in love, work, financial independence, attitude, attire, and education.

According to a 2010 New York Times Magazine story by Robin Marantz Henig:

“[Today’s] young people remain un­tethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary (and often grueling) Teach for America jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life.”

In a similar Time article from five years earlier, Lev Grossman cast a wide net on “twixters,” which he described as:

“Full-grown men and women who still live with their parents, who dress and talk and party as they did in their teens, hopping from job to job and date to date, having fun but seemingly going nowhere.”

Henig and Grossman make sophisticated cases, but Morley Safer doesn’t come close in a shockingly mean-spirited 2008 60 Minutes segment on “millennials,” which argues that 20-somethings are “narcissistic praise-hounds,” too coddled to contribute in the workforce.

The millennials I know don’t often resemble the ones I see in journalists’ nervous portraits.

And the Times chronicles the struggles of post-grads stuck on their parents’ dime after finding employers unimpressed by their carefully cultivated literary and pop-culture enthusiasms.

The coverage devoted to Americans in their twenties creates a category so encompassing that I wonder if it delineates anything more than the ever-shifting stereotypes about “kids these days.”

Plato complained about the youth, not that you need to go back to antiquity for examples. As Claude Fischer, a sociologist at the University California, Berkeley, points out, “There was the James Dean teenage-rebel media obsession of the 1950s; the college dropout hippie obsession of the 1970s . . .”

Still, could the worriers finally be on to something? Are people in their twenties at long last going nowhere?

In fact, available data, always open to a range of interpretation, don’t paint a clear picture of 20-somethings in a unique state of arrest.

Yes, people are marrying later than ever, but that reflects a roughly 60-year trend. In any case, if nuptials are a milestone of maturity in an age of two-month celebrity marriages, then we need new milestones.

Employment numbers are no more supportive of the going-nowhere thesis. Between January of 2009 and today, unemployment among 25–29 year-olds was consistently higher than 10 percent, but that’s nothing new. The numbers were similar in the recession of 1982–1983, the last time unemployment reached the overall levels we’ve seen in the Great Recession.

What about financial independence? Presumably today’s 20-somethings, facing high unemployment and unprecedented tuition debt, should be far behind the curve of history. But current rates of home-ownership among young people look much as they have for decades, according to NYU economist Edward Wolff. Wolff’s data lump everyone under 35 into one category, and in 2010, 37.5 percent of them owned a home. Unsurprisingly, the ownership rate was higher during the housing bubble of the 2000s, but the average since the beginning of data collection in 1983 is not far off at 38.8 percent.

Related WBUR Content

  • Generation Stuck: Twelve 20-somethings chronicle their lives for WBUR. Learn more.
  • Do you have a “stuck” story that hasn’t been told? Email us or record your story now
  • #GenStuck is a project of the iLab, a new initiative at WBUR committed to innovation and experimentation in public radio.

Given the mishmash of inconclusive data, it hardly seems reasonable to entertain, as Grossman and Henig do, the need for new state-funded mechanisms to support drifting 20-somethings—especially since that drift is largely financed by economic privilege. Maybe more unemployment support would help, but should the state really pay for traveling, blogging and acting lessons? And maybe we should have more debt relief or caps on college tuition, but those policies arguably make sense no matter the state of 20-somethings.

The millennials I know—and as a 27-year-old, I know many—don’t often resemble the ones I see in journalists’ nervous portraits.

We do face many challenges, most notably the economics of being young during a recession we aren’t responsible for. But my peers are working hard on careers, graduate school, creative projects, and relationships.

Where some journalists see worrisome delay, we see life unfolding in real-time, at a pace we don’t really control. Where they seem to believe that non-conjugal love, advanced degrees, traveling, and rented apartments are barricades against adult life, we can’t help but shrug. I don’t know a single person my age who cares whether our parents’ generation classifies us as adults. When I share these stories with friends—usually via Facebook, where our covens of adolescence gather—I get nothing but eye rolling in response. Are we the only ones who appreciate that immaturity happens at every age and stage of life?

Forging a neat division between adulthood and childhood is probably a fool’s errand. The shift is gradual and imperceptible. You couldn’t have measured it in Larkin’s case. For him, becoming an adult meant recognizing that “each event is / Freighted with a source-encrusting doubt,” that uncertainty is ever-present and we “Live on what is.”

That sounds wise to me, but then, he was a scribbling and searching artist, the media’s very model of a 20-something going nowhere.

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • happilyrentingw/mygf

    I would love to get married, but I’m gay. Fortunately, I can do that here, but assuming 10% of the population is gay, that alone could bring down your marriage statistic of millennials. Just a thought.

    • Ted

      The relevant point here is that people are marrying later. Reduced stigma surrounding homosexual relationships might affect the total number of people getting married—no need to pass as straight by marrying a person of the opposite sex—but not when they do so. At least not directly. And any link could never be rigorously demonstrated.

      • Fed14

        I fail to see how marriage, in general, has any affect on the world at all. Sure it may lead to a decrease in population but that is a problem in need of fixing anyways.

  • aTracy

    As a 27 year old myself, I agree on many accounts the media
    and the older generations take an overly negative view of my generation. Though at the same time, our generation is
    not without fault and all the negative aspects of our generation is amplified
    due to the media revolution.

    When I look at the past through historical records and
    talking to older people, it seems that the “adults” of that time always has the
    same story for the last 100 years. The
    two comments that are always made are “kids these days…” and “This is the worst
    time to be a kid”. People also forget
    that the idea of moving out of your parents’ house and living on your own as
    soon as possible is a fairly new concept that formed after WWII when American
    troops were coming home with GI bills and the economy was booming. Before that, the main reasons to move out on
    your own was to find work in a different area, or because you got married. Also the idea that it is bad that people
    getting married at an older age is foolish.
    If anything it is better! We are
    living longer and there is no reason to rush into marriage when we are not
    ready and continue the trend of a 50% divorce rate.

    When I graduated in 2008, jobs were hard to find and many of
    the people I graduated with did not find a full time job for over a year. That does not mean they were not looking, or
    that they were not hard working. It’s
    hard to be productive when there are no jobs.
    As for 20-something year olds not holding a job, schools now tell
    students to move from job to job. All of
    my professors said to expect to work for 3 different companies in the first 2
    years. Students are told to use their
    job position as leverage to get better pay at another job. We are also told to “do what you love” and to
    keep looking for a job you truly like.
    It’s important to be out there working even if you don’t love the job, but
    that doesn’t mean you should settle for whatever job happens to come your way.

    Now all this is not to say there isn’t a new level of vanity
    in my generation. With new social media
    like Facebook and Twitter, many of the younger generations seem to have the
    idea that “everything I say is important”.
    Clearly this is not everyone, but it does help plant the seeds of narcissism. It also causes the people that are less
    productive in society to stand out as they flood the internet with pointless,
    self worshiping dribble. Though this
    spreads to all generations, the younger generations are at the forefront of
    this, as they are at the cutting edge of technology.

    I have more…but I feel I’ve ranted enough.

  • Joanna Bloor

    As a member of generation x (I think – I’m kinda old) and a manager of a large team of Millennials I couldn’t agree more with the commentary here. It’s up to me as the person in the leadership position to “lead” the team in the way that makes them most effective and for your generation it’s a little different. The difference is the measurement of success is different. Different isn’t wrong, it’s just different. I’m blown away daily by the innovative thinking and hard work coming out of the millennial workforce.

  • Pingback: Generation Stuck: The Struggling 20-Somethings | Radio Boston()

  • ScrappyT

    As a 28-year-old I think the negative portrayal of people my age and younger is largely accurate. I know two teachers (one from high school and one from grade school) from my hometown who retired early largely because they could not stand how interfering the parents had become and how whiny the students had become.
    Of course, this is anecdotal, but I think representative of the causes and effects of how kids are being raised.
    I think your use of home ownership is very misleading. The percentage of home buyers who get financial help from their parents keeps increasing, so the same amount of people owning homes with more of them getting help from mommy and daddy does not seem like independence and responsibility to me.

    • Fed14

      Sure, We ( 22 y/o here) are getting financial help from parents and other places. But if you take into account the fact that housing prices have jumped far beyond inflation, you realize that the money our parents are paying is just money borrowed from us to beguin with. In reality we are just working through problems set in motion by our fathers and their fathers before them.

  • Testy McTest

    This is a test.

  • Pointpanic

    generational issues are an old tired trope.