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Generation Stuck: How Are 20-Somethings Today Any Different?

Kat and Sam, the two radio diarists for WBUR’s special series, Generation Stuck.

Kat and Sam, the two radio diarists for WBUR’s special series, Generation Stuck.

We continue WBUR’s special series, Generation Stuck, that focuses on the challenges that 20-somethings are facing in this economy. Are young people genuinely struggling or just struggling with their own sense of entitlement? And how different are they from previous generations?

Robin Marantz Henig, a baby boomer, co-wrote “Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?” with her millennial daughter, Samantha Henig. In it, they conclude:

[S]ome things about today’s world make being twentysomething different from how it’s ever been: the staggering number of options available, the crush of student debt, the long lead time before deciding about babies. But on other measures — career options, marriage, health, friendships, and relations to parents — we think that Millennials are more like preceding generations than they are different.

Henig joins us to explain what makes the plight of 20-somethings today unique and what generational patterns continue to endure and inspire the same old criticism.



Excerpt From “Twentysomething”

This article has been adapted by arrangement with Hudson Street Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from “Twentysomething” by Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig. Copyright 2012 by Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig.

Ally McBeal vs. Liz Lemon


"Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?" by Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig. (Courtesy of Hudson Street Press)

(Courtesy of Hudson Street Press)

Career deadlines, marriage deadlines, parenthood deadlines — all the internal deadlines for adult milestones have gotten later since the Baby Boomers’ day. Traditionally, five milestones have been used to define adulthood — completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having a first child. Millennials pass through all the Big Five, on average, about five years later than Baby Boomers did. It’s become a feedback loop: as the milestones are commonly achieved deeper into post-adolescence, cultural expectations shift even further back.

Today’s young people don’t expect to marry until their late twenties, don’t expect to start a family until their thirties, don’t expect to be on an actual career track until much later than their parents were. So they make decisions about their futures that reflect this wider time frame. Many would not be ready to take on the trappings of adulthood any earlier even if the opportunity arose; they haven’t braced themselves for it.


It’s surprising how cultural shifts in these age deadlines can sneak up on you. I spent a weekend recently bingeing on old episodes of Ally McBeal, which I remember watching when it started in 1997. Parts of Ally’s life had seemed exciting to me as a teenager. I was especially taken with the notion of living with a best friend, in an apartment, as a grown-up. Ally and Renee sat on the couch in their pajamas, drinking red wine and eating ice cream. It looked great. But I could also see that Ally was boy-crazy, baby-fi xated, and a little pathetic. Those chats with her roomie always came back to the same lament: Where were all the decent, single guys, and would Ally ever nab one in time to avoid old maidhood? Her biological clock was ticking, after all. Those visions of dancing babies weren’t just an exercise in late-90s CGI.

So imagine my horror, mid-marathon, when I realized that Ally, in season one, was twenty-seven — the same age as I am. It seems ridiculous to me now that a character so established in her career, with such fi nely tailored (though ludicrously short) skirt suits, and yet so damn desperate, could be my age. When such a character exists on TV today, she’s not twenty-seven. Just look at Liz Lemon from 30 Rock: another career woman freaking out about whether she’s nearing the end of her window to get married and have kids. When the series began in 2006, Liz was thirty-six, almost a decade older than Ally.


Millennials are certainly taking their time, as measured by the Big Five milestones. Of course, the whole idea of milestones is something of an anachronism; it implies a lockstep march toward adulthood that’s rare these days. Kids don’t shuffle along in unison. They slouch toward adulthood at an uneven, highly individual pace. Some never achieve all five milestones. (Maybe they’re single or childless by choice, or maybe they want to marry but can’t because their home state prohibits gay marriage.) Others reach the milestones completely out of order, advancing professionally before committing to a monogamous relationship, having children young and marrying later, leaving school to go to work, or choosing school only after becoming financially secure. But those traditional milestones do offer some insight into how people even now typically make the transition to adulthood. And the fact that Millennials are taking so long says a lot. In 1960, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had passed all five by the time they’d reached thirty. Among thirty- year-olds in 2000, fewer than half of the women and one- third of the men had done so.

Why the delay? There are several reasons, according to Jeffrey Arnett, the Clark University psychologist who says young people today are going through a new life stage he calls “emerging adulthood.” People need more education to survive in an information- based economy, which means staying on the student (and less grown-up) track longer. Even after all that schooling, there are fewer entry- level jobs, which means a longer wait for financial security. There is at once a sense that the years stretch out forever now that average life spans extend into the eighties, and a sense that nothing lasts given how transient some “permanent” commitments can turn out to be. And on the home front, young people may feel in less of a rush to marry and have babies because of the general acceptance of premarital sex, cohabitation, and birth control, combined with more career options for women and easier access to assisted reproductive technology for those who wait.

This is where emerging adulthood comes in. Its hallmarks, according to Arnett, are identity exploration, instability, self- focus, feeling in-between, and feeling a sense of possibilities. Much of this happens during adolescence, too, but it takes on new depth and urgency in the twenties. To the psychologists and sociologists now making a case for emerging adulthood, this new stage of life is something to celebrate — a grace period that grants young people the time they need to stretch, explore, get to know themselves, and get to know what they’re doing.

From age eighteen until about twenty- nine, Arnett says, young men and women are more focused on themselves than at any other time of life. They’re less certain about the future in general, but also more optimistic, no matter what their economic background. This is where that “sense of possibilities” comes in, he says; emerging adults have not yet tempered their idealistic vision of what awaits. “The dreary, dead- end jobs, the bitter divorces, the disappointing and disrespectful children . . . none of them imagine that this is what the future holds for them,” he wrote in his 2004 book, Emerging Adulthood. Ask young people if they agree with the statement “I am very sure that someday I will get to where I want to be in life,” and 96 percent will say yes.

Along with the exciting, even exhilarating elements of being this age, there is also a downside: dread, frustration, uncertainty, a sense of not quite understanding the rules of the game. More than positive or negative feelings, what Arnett hears most often is ambivalence— beginning with his finding that 60 percent of the young people he has studied told him they felt like both grown- ups and not- quite- grown-ups.

Other stories from this show:

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  • pauly2468

    Those “milestones” have always been oppressive to all but the most “well-adjusted” or maybe “conforming” is the word.
    The housing dabacle is,at least in part. related to the pressure for everyone to own a home.This is not standard in most other countries.
    Also, the frantic rush to go to and finish college by age 22 has caused problems such as the student debt disaster and so many young people having degrees they can’t use.Law Degrees are leaving 1000′s of people in the lurch,in terms of career and $ because going to Law School was the “thing to do.”Maybe the “milestone” is for parents to say”in time” that their son or daughter is a Law School Graduate and,thereby the parents have reached the milestone.
    For many. waiting a year or a few years before or mid-college would work better in terms of finding what’s right for them.
    Having a baby by X age is not for every woman. In fact, marraige and children have not ever been an appropriate choice for all women.
    It’s called “settling down”.”Settling is the operative word.

  • http://www.fibrowitch.net Jan Dumas

    So kids, what did you get your degree in? Did you have a good GPA? Did you do internships, or join professional organizations in your field before graduation?

    Or did you get a degree in 17th century kitsch? 

  • http://twitter.com/hgmirand Hermin Miranda

    I do not understand what’s the rush??? 20-somethings should not be concerned with finding life-long careers. You’re still practically a very young adult in your 20′s! You should be enjoying life in your 20′s, go travel…. take odd jobs here and there…. have fun!!!! You’ll realize that once you turn 30 all you have to look forward to is retirement! 

  • J H Gorton

    My father was an electronic engineer w/o a college degree. I can’t even begin to service my debt without additional debt for a professional degree. We’re not entitled, just the victim of dramatically inflated bars to entry. (By the way, graduated from undergrad with a 3.90, summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa)

  • ChevSm

    Kat-  It’s very difficult to get a global health job without a graduate degree unless you have a bunch of experience or are willing to work abroad. 
    What about the Peace Corps….?? 

    This could be a great opportunity to get some experience abroad in your field. 

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    I really feel for these kids (as I can say from 20 years beyond).  Certainly the recession was part of it. But even besides that–coming out with the crushing levels of debt, astounding levels of gas prices and car insurance, stagnant housing markets, and more. I couldn’t have done it.

  • ToyYoda

    All these stories are heart  breaking, and I hope they make it.  But, it would be nice to know what the ‘stuck’ people studied in college so that listeners can give concrete advice, and college students know what to avoid.  Without telling us what they want, it’s all just whining.  I hate to sound tough.

    I’m a Gen-Xer and I think they have very real challenges but I also feel that they are very entitled.  Often times I’ve been served at restaurants by the stuck-generation  but many of them come from the humanities: history, English, etc.  One of them expected to drive a Mercedes after getting her Masters in History.  I am not exaggerating on that last fact.  Not many get to drive fancy cars, and here’s a Masters in History major disappointed that she was not driving a Mercedes and serving me.
    Anyways,  I had the same over blown expectations.  I was fed the idea that as long as I work hard, fortune would come.  Fortunately or unfortunately, this 15-year lie/expectation was shattered in college.  I got very depressed and barely passed college.  For college students, you can’t expect to work hard and expect fortune to come.  If you work hard for fortune then fortune will come, but if you work hard for the sake of working hard or for some material gain, you’ll just live a life of tedium and disappointment.

    • rogger2

      I agree completely. 

      Taking out $100,000+ for an art degree or history degree or theater degree …. etc.  is probably not a great idea. 

  • IanH

    This is all so depressing, I feel for all my peers struggling out there.

    I’m graduating in a few days with a degree in mechanical engineering – I don’t want to brag but rather bring a little positive talk to this conversation – But I will start a well paying job this month, with only 30 k in debt, and I get to come back to the north shore where I grew up.

    It’s really a problem that people aren’t going for profession specific degrees. If you get an engineering degree you can do well in life, and you can do a lot with engineering its not all math and paperwork once you get out into the field. The engineering jobs out there are abundant and well paying. 

  • Renee

    What seems to be missing from this conversation is the acknowledgement of race. Young people of color have struggled with issues of underemployment and unemployment for a very long time. While I recognize that the accrual of student loan debt within a struggling economy is a profoundly difficult issue for many people, this feels like a conversation focusing specifically on the experience of white, middle class young people without an acknowledgement of such.

    • EndRacismAndSexism

      “People of color” have far more opportunities in this region than white people do, and white people have more opportunities than Asian people. It’s much more difficult to get a scholarship to college if you’re white or Asian. Companies love hiring “people of color” because they can brag about being “diverse.” Yes, there is still racism against so-called “people of color,” but there is far more reverse discrimination against whites and Asians. The same goes for sexism. Speaking as a woman in a field dominated by men, I will say the same thing about sex: there is far more reverse discrimination against men than there is sexism against women.

      How do we combat this? The answer is to view others simply as “people” instead of “people of color,” “people without color,”  “people with squinty eyes,” “men,” and “women.”

  • MargitP

    My daughter did a degree in Zoology at McGill University and graduated a year ago, after which she followed her boyfriend to California. Before she went to college she did a gap year where she worked a low level office job for 6 months, then went to Madagascar to work on a marine volunteer project. In summer breaks she worked as a lifeguard, then took volunteer positions for the last month. She too has found it difficult to find a position and decided to apply to Americorps to at least gain experience. She was turned down for her first choice of location but did get an offer for her second choice so now she is working as part of a team that surveys the Klamath River and salmon stocks. Not well paid, but she is gaining experience and networking, and almost as important, figuring out what she might want to do in future. So graduates, hang in there- volunteer, network and eventually something turns up. Stay positive!

  • http://www.facebook.com/will.flannigan Will Flannigan

    This is a well done story. I’m a member of Generation Y and I consider myself very lucky that I have a job in my field, but that wasn’t always the case. I did work as a bartender for several years. After losing my job I struggled. After graduating I applied to more than 50 employers. I had 1 job offer. That job was at McDonald’s.

    Keep in mind I have a degree and a 3.2 GPA.

    Luckily I soon found a job working at a small agriculture newspaper, but I’ll never forget that manager from McDonald’s asking me if I had any fast food experience… 

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