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The millennial generation has become a punchline—a monolith of entitled, dependent young people unable to detach from their parents and function in the “real world.” Popular media consider these traits to be inherent in today’s young adults, a result of the “you can be anything you want to be” ethos of child-rearing that is popular in the United States. Academics, however, are finding the opposite to be true. Young people and their parents are simply reacting to an economic and social environment that is rapidly changing and vastly different than that of previous generations.

Entering the adult world today takes a lot more time and training than it used to. The demand for highly-educated, technologically-savvy young adults has increased, meanwhile economic conditions have declined. Young people are financially dependent for longer and are closer to their parents as a result. Millennials, usually defined as those born between 1980 and 2000, are coming of age more slowly than previous generations, but writing them off as lazy and incapable is mistaking correlation for causation. Millennials’ delayed adulthood isn’t a generational deficiency—it’s the reality of growing up in the 21st century.

What is it with kids these days?

Young adults across the developed world are reaching the traditional milestones of adulthood later than previous generations. Sociologists use five markers in the transition to adulthood: “completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child.” Millennials are completing each at a later age than their parents did. Preparation for the knowledge economy has pushed back the age at which young adults finish their education. In April, a study by the US Census Bureau revealed that while in 1970, 80 percent of young Americans were married by age 30, today, the same proportion reach marriage by 45. In 2015, one in three Americans age 18 to 34 lived with their parents, a quarter of whom neither went to school nor work.

Not only are young adults reaching adulthood later, they’re also struggling to cope with the uncertainty of the transition. The 2014 American College Health Association assessment found that over a third of college students “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.” Between 2000 and 2012, mental health visits among college students rose 16 percent. Mental health struggles aren’t limited to those in school; young Americans of all backgrounds are reporting increasing levels of depression and anxiety.  The Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults, which surveys students from a wide variety of socioeconomic and education levels, found that 33 percent of young people reported experiencing depression and 52 percent struggle with anxiety.

Don’t blame the kids

Why are young people today growing up more slowly than their parents? The answer depends on who you ask. There’s a popular conception that coddled upbringings made millennials selfish, narcissistic, and excessively dependent on their parents. This claim is supported by a 2008 study which found that among samples of American college students who completed the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, “almost two-thirds … are above the mean 1979-1985 narcissism score, a 30 percent increase.” The study’s most famous contributor was psychologist Jean Twenge, who gained prominence from her 2006 her book, “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—And More Miserable Than Ever Before.” Twenge diagnosed a generation whose grandiose sense of self, combined with a lazy, entitled attitude, resulted in a generation of helpless and hapless 20-somethings unable to deal with the challenges of adult life.

In the decade since “Generation Me,” however, a growing group of developmental psychologists have challenged, and largely discredited, the popular conception of the entitled, dependent millennial. Clark University psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, who spearheads the Clark University Poll, found that not only is Twenge’s data on narcissism unsound, but claims that millennials are unmotivated, entitled, and self-centered are also false. On the contrary, according to research by Arnett and others, millennials are more tolerant and altruistic than their elders. They have lofty aspirations, but not over-sized egos and unreachable goals. Arnett, a self-described “champion” of millennials, assesses delayed adulthood from a more charitable viewpoint. In 2006, Arnett published a book suggesting that a new phase of life, “emerging adulthood,” should be thought of as an independent bridge between adolescence and young adulthood. This new period is characterized by ambivalence, self-discovery, and increased mental health problems. Arnett sees this new phase of life as part of growing up in the social and economic conditions of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

There is growing consensus that the discernable differences between today’s young adults and their parents are the results of tough economic conditions and changing technology. An impenetrable job market has forced many young people back home or caused them to pursue higher education in pursuit of a more lucrative career. For the first time, young Americans are not projected to lead longer, more prosperous lives than those of their parents. In 1975, 75 percent of young men aged 25-34 earned an income of over $30,000 (in 2015 dollars). By 2016, that proportion shrank to 59 percent. More young families are burdened with student debt—and more of it—than ever before. According to the Guardian, “a combination of debt, joblessness, globalization, demographics, and rising house prices is depressing the incomes and prospects of millions of young people across the developed world, resulting in unprecedented inequality between generations.”

Financial insecurity impacts every milestone of adulthood. Young adults are delaying marriage to focus on careers, and when married they find themselves “priced out of parenthood,” choosing childlessness to avoid financial ruin. They’re returning home at increasing rates after college or a few independent working years, leading to the term “boomerang generation.” Many psychologists attribute rising rates of mental health issues to economic hardship, too.

Temple University’s Laurence Steinberg, author of “The Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence,” sees the economy as one of several potential contributors to millennial malaise. There was a great deal of anxiety beginning around 2008 that there are still remnants of people worrying whether they’re going to have enough money to live a life comparable to their parent’s lives,” Steinberg told the HPR. “There’s lots of stuff to feel anxious about. And that was before Trump got elected.” Steinberg also noted that the increasingly competitive job market can contribute to pressure and competition for prospective college students which was not faced by their parents.

Don’t blame their parents, either

Perhaps the only people as widely criticized as millennials are those who raised them. Parents have long been blamed for the shortcomings of their offspring. Perceptions of millennials as developmentally stunted and self-absorbed go hand-in-hand with visions of “helicopter” parents coddling their children—tending every need, wiping every tear, and yelling at every teacher who dares to give a bad grade. In a 2013 Slate editorial, psychologist Brooke Donatone saw a clear culprit for the declining mental health of her college-age clients: their parents. Donatone condemned millennials not as narcissistic, but as unable to gain emotional autonomy from their controlling parents.

If parents are navigating every minor situation for their kids, kids never learn to deal with conflict on their own,” Donatone lamented. “Helicopter parenting has caused these kids to crash land.”

Not everyone is convinced of an over-parenting epidemic, though. “It’s balderdash,” Arnett told the HPR. More than that, Arnett worries, “it’s destructive because the evidence shows that it’s really important for parents to be involved in this decade [of emerging adulthood].” He’s referring to research by University of Texas at Austin’s Karen Fingerman and her colleagues, which found that the children of involved parents are more successful than their peers across the board. Grown children who reported “intense” parental support were found to also have a “better sense of goals and life satisfaction,” according to the 2012 study. As the transition from adolescence to adulthood lengthens, young people need more from their parents, and for longer. Arnett points out that 50 years ago, young adults’ financial and emotional lives centered on their spouses and children. “Parents stay in the picture a lot longer because you don’t have that close, committed, long-term, intimate relationship until close to age 30.”

That’s not to say that every all involvement is good involvement. Steinberg, who has written extensively about the challenge adolescence poses to youth and their parents, stresses the importance of striking a balance between independence and support. Fingerman, too, understands the “over-parenting” concerns of Donatone and many others. “I’m sure that if you talk to clinical psychologists, some of them have instances where parents have been too involved,” she told the HPR. However, she stresses the importance of assessing how millennials are faring considering the tough conditions their generation is facing. “People get frustrated saying ‘They shouldn’t need that help!’ Well they do,” Fingerman said, “We live in a world where the economy is not [benefitting] young people.” Population-based surveys like Fingerman’s, which compare adolescents of comparable socioeconomic status and condition, consistently show that those who have involved, supportive parents fare better in every regard. Millennials aren’t extra needy because they have doting parents, rather, involved parents are responding to a demonstrated need.

Playing cultural catch-up

At the root of the criticism about “young people these days” is a generational mismatch of the concept of adulthood. More relevant than the speed at which today’s young people reach adulthood is the cultural perception of when young adults should become financially and emotionally independent. Today’s emerging adults simply aren’t reaching the milestones of adulthood at the expected speed. The Census Bureau study found that Americans believe young adults should be financially independent at age 21, but fewer than one in three 21-year-olds are. They are expected to have finished their education at 22, yet, by that age, half are still enrolled and only a third hold a full-time job. Three quarters of young Americans are not married by the “ideal age” of 25.

The disconnect between the expectations put on young Americans and their inability to meet them is what Fingerman refers to as a “cultural lag.” “Sometimes society and behaviors change before beliefs and values do,” Fingerman explained, “Going back to the mid-20th century, we had the value that everyone should be independent.”

Cultural lag isn’t a new phenomenon—and neither is complaining about the young. “There has never been, to my knowledge, a generation of adults that didn’t criticize people that age as being immoral or less intelligent or lazier or what have you,” Steinberg noted, “I was an adolescent in the 1960s and people said awful things about us too.” Delayed adulthood isn’t entirely negative, either. Fingerman emphasizes that the increased closeness of young adults and their parents, partially enabled by advancements in technology, can enrich the emotional lives of parents and their kids. Arnett describes the tumultuous period of emerging adulthood as a time of exploration and discovery. He frequently quotes the Taylor Swift song “22” to illustrate this ambivalence: “We’re happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time.”

“She really nailed it,” Arnett said, “That’s the way it is when you’re 18 to 25.”

Image credit: State Farm/Flickr

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