Nearly every day, we hear something in the news related to the life choices of millennials — the generation born roughly between 1980 and 2000. The millennials are moving back in with their parents, putting off marriage, earning less income, building less wealth and accumulating excessive student debt.
Societal expectations for millennials are high, and the daily drumbeat of news would suggest this generation is failing. Some have tried to blame the poor economy, but this oversimplifies millennials’ long-term aspirations vs. their current desires. Regarding marriage, for example, unmarried Americans would like to find spouses someday, but most say they’re currently not ready or haven’t met the right person. (Note: This is reportedly “Unmarried and Single Americans Week,” of which there are now more than 105 million of us.)
Wednesday marked my 30th birthday. Marriage is likely still several years away and children even further. I finished my MBA at the University of Chicago last year and now have $200,000 in student loan debt. I’m a renter and find it unlikely that I’ll buy property any time in the next five years. And yet I’m very happy with where I am in life.
I’m not unique. Most of my friends are in nearly identical situations, and as we hit 30, there’s an arbitrary mile marker that says we’re supposed to have our affairs in order and be “adults.” For earlier generations, that meant getting married, having children, buying a home, and developing a career that followed a set path. Our culture has fed our minds since childhood that turning 30 is that cutoff point.
Prince Harry had to endure his 30th a little over a week ago with nearly every media report going out of its way to note that the prince is 30 and unmarried. CBS News found American tourists outside Buckingham Palace that hoped Harry is looking to his older brother as an example to get married and start a family.
Are older generations right to worry about the arrested development of the millennials?
There’s much to be said for tradition. Some would argue that societal norms have evolved for reasons that we may not fully understand. Working to throw off traditional order could have a number of unforeseen consequences.
But millennials aren’t actively rebelling. We’re adapting. As technology and medicine continue to advance, we can expect longer average lifespans, and we have the ability to determine when we’re ready for a family. We’ve gradually moved toward greater gender equality that makes traditional expectations for the age of marriage seem backwards.
Millennials are experimenting with a new normal and collectively finding out what works. There is evidence that these changes may be a good thing.