Today's twentysomethings won't have the lives their parents had. And that's OK by them.
They're going to school longer, delaying marriage and children, job-hopping and apartment-swapping. They're also moving back home after college to save money, traveling to faraway places to work and generally taking ''me'' time to decide what they want their futures to be.
While their baby boomer parents lament that they've somehow gone wrong, experts studying why these kids aren't more like their parents' generation say there's a clear explanation: It takes longer to grow up these days.
Researchers, sociologists and psychologists say there's a new phase of life -- only recently acknowledged -- that covers this gap between adolescence and adulthood. What was once the purview of academia has crossed into the popular culture. A plethora of how-to-cope books are declaring a worldwide shift in what it means to be an adult.
''It's the harbinger of a basic transformation of adulthood,'' says James Ct, a sociologist at the University of Western Ontario who has coined the term ''youthhood.'' ''The traditional adulthood of duty and self-sacrifice is becoming more and more a thing of the past.''
Recent findings published by the American Sociological Association and based on U.S. Census data show a sharp decline in the percentage of young adults who have finished school, left home, gotten married, had a child and reached financial independence, considered typical standards of adulthood. In 2000, 46% of women and 31% of men had reached those markers by age 30, vs. 77% of women and 65% of men at the same age in 1960.
''What I'm talking about is very widespread and across countries and not peculiar to the United States,'' says Frank Furstenberg Jr., a University of Pennsylvania sociologist who headed the research team. ''It isn't just an aberration. It's become normal behavior.''
Shana Finkelstein, a May graduate from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst with a degree in communications and legal studies, says her family has been supportive -- even though she's changing her mind ''daily'' about going to law school. She is also toying with becoming an event planner. Until she decides, Finkelstein is waiting tables at The Cheesecake Factory in Cambridge.
''I'm not in a rush to get to a job that I may or may not like,'' she says. ''I'm 22. What's the rush? At this point, I don't really know what I want to do.''
It's a tougher climb to the top
In the 1970s, a bachelor's degree could launch a career and support a family. Not anymore. Now, graduate school is almost a necessity and that means greater expenses, often when students are still saddled with college loans. More years of schooling also mean a delay entering the workforce. In this down economy, there's also stiffer competition for jobs. Financial independence is but a dream for many.
The need to save money brought 23-year-old Lindsey Engelman home to Austin after earning a bachelor's degree in legal studies in June from the University of California-Santa Cruz. She initially moved to New York, but when jobs and living arrangements got too tangled, she came home, got a job at a law office and is saving for a move next year to South America to work for a non-profit. Graduate school in public policy is part of her plan.
''I am tremendously proud of the idealism that Lindsey has and the dedication to making a difference in the world,'' says her mother, Merle Dover, a 54-year-old attorney. ''But then the parent in me comes out and says, 'That's fine, but you're going to have to support yourself.' ''
Engelman is among those some call ''boomerang kids'' because they return home after college. According to Twentysomething Inc., a market researcher that tracks youth trends, 65% of this year's grads expect to live with their parents after earning degrees.
Katie Foster, 22, did more than live at home after graduating in December with a psychology degree from Austin College in Sherman, Texas. In the future, she plans to head to graduate school. In the interim, Foster, who graduated a semester early, returned to the elementary, middle and high schools she attended, this time working as a substitute teacher.
''Since it was my 'freebie' semester, I didn't feel the need to have a 'real job,' '' she said of her life as a sub from Nabari, Japan. She's now teaching high school English for the Japanese government.
Debate over what's driving these changing attitudes is fodder for academic conferences, research grants and books for this first generation of parents living through an odd dichotomy. Their highly educated, seemingly sophisticated, media-savvy and worldly kids just don't seem very mature compared with where they were at the same point in their lives.
''We were in a hurry to graduate, get out, get a job, get married. I didn't know there was anything else you could do,'' says Finkelstein's mother, Abby, of Houston. She is 48 and was married at 23. ''These kids are not in a hurry to do those big things.''
Getting it 'right' now
Society is also an enabler. The advent of birth control pills led to changes in sexual mores, with less pressure for marriage. Twenty-somethings have seen their parents' early marriages end in divorce and the jobs their parents thought they'd have for 30 years end with corporate downsizing. As boomers resist aging and watch TV programs like Nip/Tuck that glorify youth, their offspring are paying attention.
''Twentysomethings are proving they want to get it 'right' now,'' says Alexandra Robbins, co-author of the 2001 book Quarterlife Crisis. ''Our generation does not want to make our parents' generation's mistakes.''
Terri Apter, a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge in England, says the young people she has dubbed ''thresholders'' are not the product of overly indulgent boomers spoiling their kids.
''What worries me is that a lot of parents think they need tough love and they should not be helping them. That ain't so,'' she says. ''These young people need a lot of practical and emotional support from their parents.''
Matt Twyman, 23, says he got a bit of initial financial help from his family after he graduated in December with a bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Texas-Austin. Right now, he's working two jobs and facing about $16,000 in college loans. Still, he and his girlfriend of almost three years returned just six weeks ago from a three-month trip to New Zealand.
''I know I'll end up doing something strongly related to physics,'' he said. ''I wanted a cooldown period to decide.''
He's studying for the GRE in November, in case he decides on graduate school. Meanwhile, he's working at a climbing gym and UT library storage facility to pay the bills.
Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a developmental psychologist who has studied this age group since 1992, explores the mind-set of young people in a new book, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through the Twenties.
''They're not as mature because they're not required to be,'' he says. ''It's really the society and culture as a whole.''
Sociologists expect this prolonged adolescence to be solidified by the economic decline and jobs displaced by technology, which may mean job preparation will take longer. Also, with longer life spans, people will be on the job into their golden years.
Arnett notes that some emerging adults forged a clear path and knew early what they wanted to do. They are the exception, he says, estimating that only 10% to 20% of those interviewed for his book had settled lives by their mid-20s.
''This is a generation that has grown up in an accelerated culture and forced them to be older before they're ready,'' says David Morrison, president of Twentysomething Inc. ''Now that they have their independence, they are going to squeeze every ounce of that sponge before they settle down.''
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