For Millennials, The Dream Of Adulthood Is Dead — & That’s Okay

·10 min read

If you think about it, Midsommar is actually the perfect coming-of-age movie. As in, age is coming for you. For the film’s fictional cult, each life stage is very firmly defined — from 18 to 36 you’re in the “summer” of your life, and from 36 to 54 is fall. At age 72, life is over. The movie is violent, but the existential horror stems from our collective obsession with and ritualization of how someone must exist (or stop existing) in society. And though it’s taken to an absurd extreme in Midsommar, there’s something recognizable in how uncompromising and painful it is to grow up and grow old in this world.

If we’re lucky, we spend most of our lives legally as adults, but the finger-wagging and navel-gazing about who has actually achieved adulthood sometimes makes it seem like we’ll never grow up. The oldest millennials are 40 — already enjoying that brisk fall weather — but the generation has long been portrayed in the media as being perpetually young, or at least childish. Now, according to some, it’s the pandemic that will “finally” make millennials take adulthood more seriously. After a harrowing year of quarantine, it’s being said, millennials are wising up and putting away our silly little apartments in our silly little high-cost-of-living cities in exchange for a mortgage and kids in the suburbs — you know, grown-up stuff. The implication is that delaying or denying this transition means you’re not totally future-oriented, existing in the moment like a child who hasn’t mastered object permanence yet.

But what is adulthood, anyway? It feels like it’s easier to define it by what it isn’t than what it is. You’re not fully an adult if you don’t live by yourself, if you don’t have a well-paying career (different than just “a job”), if you haven’t partnered up or had children. Meanwhile, millennials can’t seem to shake the stigma that we’re self-indulgent; we switch jobs too often, we have no respect for stability and good ole fashioned hard work. Avocados can turn mushy fast, but avo toast discourse stays perfectly ripe forever.

When we keep litigating whether millennials (and even younger generations) are taking up the mantle of adulthood in the right way, what are we really talking about? Often, it’s not genuine concern over whether we’re happy, healthy, and thriving in society. Instead it’s using the excuse of financial independence — what many consider a clear marker of adulthood — to criticize the way young people relate to money, and to make it seem like any financial difficulties they face are their own fault.

So many of the ways millennials are apparently failing to be adults have to do with how little money we have due to our childish ways, but a lot of the generational stereotypes of laziness or fickleness are easily countered by data. For one, millennials are not job-hoppers. “They actually are less likely to switch jobs than previous generations,” says labor and housing economist Gray Kimbrough, who dedicates a lot of time to debunking millennial myths.

What millennials have had to contend with are multiple recessions that have limited career advancement and wage growth. “Even though previous generations have experienced recessions and they’ve experienced major economic dislocations, on average the economy has recovered more than it has for us,” Kimbrough continues. “There was a study looking at the Great Recession that found that, particularly for the younger Gen Xers and older millennials, it impacted the trajectory of their earnings over the next decade. You find a job that works, that’s paying you, and you stick with it — when in a better time you might keep looking for a better job that would offer you more growth potential in a place that you’d rather be.”

“When we think about how the economy is growing generally, as well as how it’s treating people who are entering the labor force, things have gotten particularly bad in recent decades,” he says. One reflection of that is how, despite being the most educated generation ever, overall, millennials’ median wage is lower than that of Boomers. The benefit of college is also not as high as it once was, because more people are going to college and also because college itself is so unmanageably expensive.

Many millennials recognize that we’re “lagging behind” Baby Boomers and even Gen X, but I don’t think we really grasp how different our world is. Last year, data from the Federal Reserve showed that even though millennials are now the largest share of the workforce, we only control 4.6% of the nation’s money. In 1989, when the Baby Boomers were about the same age that millennials are now, they held 21% of the wealth. It’s true that Boomers didn’t overtake previous generations in wealth share until 2005, and it’s true that, one day, millennials will hold more wealth than Boomers do, with this passing of the torch already dubbed “The Great Wealth Transfer.” Still, though, as of right now? Millennials don’t have it easy.

But several factors will affect how long this tipping point will take, whether millennials as a whole will really be able to “catch up,” and which millennials will receive a significant amount of wealth. For one, people are living longer. Even if our income rises, we’ll have to save more money for retirement, and inheritances will come later since our parents are generally living longer too.

“Another aspect is that millennials [in America] are much less likely to be white than previous generations, and more likely to be immigrants,” says Kimbrough. “These are groups that have historically had more difficulty building wealth, and that’s just being perpetuated through all these other mechanisms. I guess some people have hope that when Boomers die, we’ll get all their money, but I kind of caution against that.”

Wealth transfer isn’t only something that occurs after parents die, but non-white millennials may not be receiving the same wealth transfers at crucial points of adulthood — like when going to college, starting to have children, buying a home, or considering a career change that could boost earnings — as their white counterparts. And this has ramifications.

The Black-white racial wealth gap in particular is a yawning chasm, and generational wealth has a lot to do with it. “By some estimates,” a Federal Reserve analysis from last year observes, “bequests and transfers account for at least half of aggregate wealth.” The median and mean wealth of white households in 2019 was $188,200 and $983,400 respectively. For Black households, the median and mean were $24,100 and $142,500. For Latinx households, $36,100 and $165,500. The other racial groups combined had lower median and mean wealth than white households, but higher than that of Black households. The staggering Black-white wealth gap is not explained away merely by income disparity, although of course wage discrimination contributes to it. It is also not resolved by obtaining more education; the gap actually widens when comparing white and Black workers with higher educational attainment.

A 2017 paper published in the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review found that about 9% of college-educated Black households have gotten a financial gift of over $10,000 from a family member, compared to about 32% of college-educated white households. Even when Black households do receive gifts, the disparity in amount is stark: “White college-educated families received $55,419 at the median and $235,353 at the mean, while their Black counterparts received $36,260 and $65,755, respectively.” Between 1989 and 2013, the median wealth difference between white households that didn’t receive an inheritance and those that did was $183,050 and $287,457. For Black households, the wealth difference between those that got an inheritance or not was $33,969 and $38,174.

How will the so-called Great Wealth Transfer change adulthood for millennials, and wealth inequality in the U.S. overall, then considering fewer millennials are white than previous generations? A 2020 Brookings Institution paper has a pretty grim outlook: “The value of intergenerational transfers is highly concentrated among high-income and very high-income households,” it reads, “and is therefore unlikely to substantially impact millennial wealth at the median or even among the bottom 80 percent of households.”

When so much of the adulthood conversation surrounds milestones that both require money or are signs of a certain level of financial security, like homeownership and marriage, it feels like we’re saying that being an adult is about accumulating wealth. But, if you’re never going to own a home, if you’re never going to get an inheritance, then can you ever fully grow up? Is the social respect that comes with being a bonafide adult only for people who have money, who understand money, who embrace the systems of wealth accumulation?

This is why the term “adulting” is awful. I hate it. First, it’s twee. But besides that, to use it means to basically agree that millennials don’t exist in a permanent state of adulthood. We’re cosplaying through minor adult-adjacent behavior like paying phone bills and doing laundry, but to be an adult requires something more — something more expensive. In the end, “adulting” is an expression of anxiety, where the very fact that you feel anxious about the way money works is evidence that you’re immature. But being an adult doesn’t mean you never feel insecure, confused, or out of your depth; it definitely doesn’t mean you internalize normative ideas of how adults live. We don’t have to pretend to be adolescent imposters just to admit there’s turbulence in adulthood today.

Clearly, our economic reality makes many traditional markers of adulthood harder to attain — but the best rebuttal isn’t always “it’s not our fault” or “we’re doing our best.” It might be to question why these markers are even desirable to begin with. Why is it assumed that, between owning a house in the suburbs or renting an apartment in the city, a rational adult would always choose the former? Why is it assumed that homeownership is something everyone wants eventually? Or at all? Same goes for marriage and having children.

I’m not romanticizing financial insecurity. But there’s a difference between wanting stability and entertaining a mythology that says “I’m a less serious person if I don’t have a mortgage,” especially in a nation where economic inequality is so racialized and gendered. If tragedies can teach people something about adulthood, for me the pandemic has only been a lesson on how narrow the American Dream’s vision is, and how often it’s attempted at the expense of others. What are “hustles” like flipping houses if not an economic crisis persevering?

I’m not alone in how the pandemic — and adulthood more broadly — has sharpened my values and politics. Our worldview is often formed by the era in which we enter adulthood. There’s a popular notion that people naturally become more conservative with age, but this isn’t really true. People’s political views remain fairly stable throughout their life. Some even theorize that the perception of becoming more conservative exists because poor people are so much less likely reach old age in the U.S. How long you get to enjoy adulthood is a privilege of wealth, too.

Adulthood isn’t a prescription, but a description of what life is like for people of a certain generation, and what choices are available to them. It would be nice if the future were a place where different conceptions of adulthood not only are respected, but where anyone can be a secure, happy adult — even if they aren’t rich.

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