In the book expanded from her blog, F*ck! I’m in My Twenties, Emma Koenig writes that “I still can’t let go of my superficial notions of what it means to be an adult.” Here is her list: a building with a doorman; obnoxiously large wine glasses; a long-term relationship; an extensive knowledge of wine; Carrie Bradshaw-esque shoes that don’t hurt; being in the best shape of my life.” Her list is as good as any since, for most Millennials, “adulthood” has gone from being a closely defined stage of life to a moving target — and a very hot topic.
Once upon a time, a generation or so ago, adulthood had markers like a board game. You checked them off as you went: driving, graduating, leaving home, getting a job, marrying, having kids. That, along with being over eighteen, pretty much did it. Twenty-one was the icing on the cake. Like it or not, you were an adult, not because you felt (or acted) like one but because you were. Emerging adulthood —as Jeffrey Arnett coined it — or The Myth of Maturity (Terri Apter) or Not Quite Adults (Richard Settersten) weren’t part of the cultural lexicon or bookshelf. And science assumed (wrongly, as it happened), that when the skull stopped growing, the brain was fully mature.
Fast-forward to 2012. Adulthood? Markers? Not so much. To the chagrin of automakers everywhere, hitting the open road to independence is pretty much so last century. Not only are fewer Millennials driving (only 46% of potential drivers nineteen and under actually had licenses in 2008, compared to almost 65% in 1998), but 46% of drivers ages 18 to 24 would rather have Internet access than own a car. (Gas prices and environmental concerns are doubtless part of the mix as well.) We all know the percentage of young adults who boomerang home (29%); the percentage of parents paying for or subsidizing supposedly “independent” housing can only be guessed at. Okay, so now we’re up to getting a job. Between job scarcity and the cycle of the unpaid internship, working can’t be a marker of adulthood anymore, or at least that’s what many Millennials seem to think.
Listen to one, a twenty-six-year-old woman who notes: “Most of the people I know have had several jobs since college and hardly any of these constitute ‘careers.’” Says one young man, twenty-five, “I have finally gotten out of intern hell and off the parental hand-out. That’s the good news. The bad news is that I’m almost twenty-six, half of my day is spent answering phones and taking messages, and I have three roommates in a five-story walk-up. Is this adulthood?” Graduate school, where a portion of Millennials find themselves, is — as it always has been — not quite adulthood either. But if not being “adult” and being fluid is the new normal, so is what one Millennials calls “the near-constant current of low-grade anxiety about not being adult as we’re pressured to measure ourselves against the norms that have been set in place as a guide to having a good life.”
But is it all about the recession or is the loss of a career as an adult marker about something else as well? It’s worth exploring. A very recent study by Adecco, a human resources firm, underscored how “unadult” Millennials can act and how it’s actually costing them in the workplace. They found that most employers would rather hire a Boomer over a Millennial which is a very counter-intuitive bit of news. Three times as many managers said they’d hire someone fifty or over (!!!!) rather than someone under thirty. Why is that? Well, for one thing, 46% of managers said that Millennials needed to be better writers. (This does not surprise me, even if it does you.) While Millennials scored higher than those old stodgy Boomers on creativity and technological skill, they failed miserably in other respects such as knowing what to wear to an interview (a view expressed by 75% of managers); sharing too much personal information on social media (70% of employers); knowing little about the company or position (62%); and being too over-confident (57%). Only 2% of managers thought Millennials were reliable and a skimpy 15% said they had a good work ethic.
Use any working definition of what it means to be an adult and take on adult responsibility, and it strikes me that all of these observations can be grouped under the category “deliberately immature” or “not serious.” Is it possibly true that someone actually showed up for an interview in shorts and flip-flops? Or in a low-cut sundress?
There’s more evidence too that if a stable job isn’t a marker of Millennial life, that’s partly a choice. The Millennial willingness to stay fluid throughout their twenties (and into their thirties) is underscored by a study that shows the Millennials switch jobs every two years, compared to every five years for Gen-xers and seven for Boomers. Another poll, this one by MTV in March of 2012, showed that Millennials go into the workplace with a grocery list of wants (casual dress, flexible hours, and the like) and a need for constant feedback. They want to be mentored and they want to be told how well they’re doing. It all makes me wonder whether, as a culture, we really overdid that self-esteem thing and whether it’s time to stop helicoptering or managing as parents. Moreover — and this is a big deal — half of Millennials said “they’d rather have no job than a job they hate.” Could the problem be that Millennials don’t know how to suck it up? That they believe job-satisfaction should be handed to them? Or is it that parents are too willing or too easily persuaded to let them have their old rooms back without requiring them to be just a little bored or under-valued for a while?
And that, in a roundabout way, brings me to Lena Dunham, chronicler of the twenty-something zeitgeist, creator of and lead actress in the hit Girls, and poster child for the Millennials, although her 3.7 million dollar book advance does seem to put her in a category all by herself. She caught the spirit of her generation when her character Hannah is horrified to discover that her parents will cut off her maintenance and actually expect her to work and pay for herself. In an irony specific to her generation, Dunham created the show while she was living at home (something Emma Koenig did too when she wrote her book, moving back home after a stint in a parents- subsidized New York apartment). Dunham did finally move out at the age of 26, buying herself a place for supposedly $500,000. But, perhaps most telling is a detail in Dunham’s autobiographical piece in The New Yorker — a “grown-up” periodical if there ever was one.
The piece is about Dunham’s ex-boyfriend and begins with his mother “unfriending” her on Facebook. Dunham, who’s 24 at the time, is devastated and calls her mother immediately. (As if her mother had experience with being blocked on Facebook but never mind.) Her mother’s response? “’How wrong. That woman is a grownup and you are a child.’”
Not every Millennial is turning down adulthood, of course. The twenties are a time of seeking, as they have been for other generations, and for establishing the self. But, maybe, just maybe, it’s time to rethink the new normal, no matter for how much great comedy it makes for.