Today’s Young Adults Don’t Hit Traditional Milestones

By Gary Rotstein
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Young people postponing marriage is just one of many long-term trends highlighted by national statistics in a recent U.S. Census Bureau report.


Shenay Jeffrey, a 28-year-old Point Breeze resident in a committed relationship for the past two years, is already six years older than the age at which her mother got married.

No move toward wedlock is imminent for the college graduate who holds a Carnegie Mellon University master’s degree in public management. Instead, she plans to move with her partner, Brandon Jennings, into a Highland Park apartment this summer, a cohabitation choice that’s increased in popularity nationally for decades and will help both of their finances.

The idea of a binding, long-term commitment, especially one that customarily involves children? That’s taking a back seat to other pursuits, such as her consideration of applying to law school while Jennings completes a Ph.D. program at the University of Pittsburgh.

“We’re both at a stage of our lives where marriage is not the most feasible, and we have a lot of individual goals we want to accomplish first,” said Jeffrey, currently employed in a Pitt student volunteer program. “I want to be set financially, and him as well, before we get into that big of a decision.”

This postponement of the age of marriage by young people compared to prior decades, partly spurred by improved educational and economic status in their 20s for women such as Jeffery, is just one of many long-term trends highlighted by national statistics in a recent U.S. Census Bureau report.

The April report, “The Changing Economics and Demographics of Young Adulthood: 1975-2016,” puts numbers to some often-discussed aspects of today’s millennial generation, ones that may inspire either frustration, sympathy or nodding approval from their baby boomer parents, who themselves often broke with their parents’ traditions. Examining census and other survey data about the 18-to-34 age group, the report notes:

-The percentage of women ages 20-24 who are married fell from 57 percent in 1976 to 17 percent in 2014, while those with a child fell from 31 percent to 25 percent. It is thus more common for a 25-year-old woman to be a mother than a wife.

-About one of three 18-to-34-year-olds relies on parents’ financial help, and a similar proportion live in their parents’ homes. The percentage living independently fell from 51 percent in 2005 to 41 percent in 2015.

-The economic situation of young men has plummeted, with 41 percent of those ages 25-34 earning less than $30,000 annually, compared to just 25 percent who were below that inflation-adjusted threshold in 1975. The status of women has spiked, meanwhile, as only 14 percent in that age group are homemakers now compared to 43 percent in 1975. Despite economic gains compared to young men, however, their earnings still trail those of males.
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-Sharing a home with an unmarried partner has been the fastest-growing living arrangement over the past four decades, used by 12 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds in 2016 compared to less than 1 percent in 1975. The age group’s most common living arrangement, however, is living with parents, which has overtaken living with a spouse.

The report pointed out how today’s millennials generally fail to reach benchmarks of adult independence by an age that most of society considers ideal. A 2012 survey of the U.S. population, for instance, found 21 was deemed the ideal age of financial independence from parents, but only 29 percent of 21-year-olds currently achieve that. And 22 was the consensus as the ideal age of obtaining full-time employment, but only 37 percent have such jobs by that age.

Similarly, wide gaps show up for getting married and becoming a parent. Putting together four yardsticks by which someone might fully embrace adulthood, a job, marriage, parenthood and living apart from parents, nearly half of 25-to-34-year-olds could claim all of those in 1975, but fewer than one-fourth could in 2016, according to the report.

“There’s a big disconnect between what Americans believe are milestones of adulthood and what young Americans are actually reaching,” Jonathan Vespa, the Census Bureau demographer who authored the report, said in an interview.

The millennial generation’s accomplishments don’t necessarily align with those of older adults to start with because of shifting attitudes. A 2014 Pew Research Center survey found 55 percent of people over age 50 thought marriage and parenting should be priorities for adults, while two-thirds of people ages 18 to 29 did not deem those essential.

On a practical level, matching past generations’ achievements at the same age became only more difficult due to the start of the Great Recession a decade ago and the labor market’s evolution since then.

The census report “tells us that more and more young men are not getting a decent foothold when it comes to work and making money, and that of course has a big impact on their capacity to get married and even stay married,” said Bradford Wilcox, a sociology professor who is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.

“But I also think there are a good number of young adults out there today who think 30 is the new 20, and they can spend their 20s looking about for a career and a relationship and not be that intentional about moving more quickly into marriage and family life and a professional future,” Wilcox said. “Seeing the 20s as a decade for an opportunity to explore, to have fun, is certainly a mindset held by some younger adults today.”

Nicole Brough, 35, a wedding planner in Pine, Pa., who was herself married at 24, sees how priorities have evolved just in the time since she left school, especially among women.

She’s generally helping brides already in their mid-to-late 20s instead of younger. That correlates to today’s U.S. median age for a woman’s first marriage being 27, compared to 22 in 1980. Men are customarily about two years older when marrying.

Thinking of her many clients who have been through post-graduate education or launched careers, Brough said, “It used to be the next step after graduating was to get married, but now women see it as good to take their time, maybe travel and do things for themselves.
There’s not the same pressure to jump right in to get married.”

Wendy Manning, director of the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green State University, said recent data suggest that people aren’t avoiding marriage altogether, they’re simply delaying it. And in many cases, that may be a positive.

“People are maybe more financially set when married than they were before, and they’re maybe making better matches and have better criteria,” she said. “I don’t think as a nation we’re really rejecting marriage _ we had been seeing a decline in the marriage rate, but that’s stabilizing now.”

Similarly, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that more young adults are returning to their parents’ homes or delaying departures from them, said Manning. National surveys have indicated the majority of both children and parents in such arrangements view them positively. She said the growth in the trend is also often exaggerated, 29 percent were with their parents in 2007, compared to 33 percent in 2015, and most are younger than 25 and perhaps just finishing school.

“If parents can help their young adults launch, I think they’re happy to do it,” said Manning, a sociology professor. “And if you’re living with parents and on a pathway to something positive, it’s not so much of a problem.”

The census report noted that about one-fourth of young adults living in their parents’ homes have a disability of some kind. Others are frequently single mothers or may be living there to help care for their parents, but more males than females are living with parents, and those men typically lack college degrees.

Like the negative connotation often ascribed to such situations, Brandon Jennings,the post-graduate student who is Jeffrey’s partner, said he knows plenty of peers trapped into living in their childhood bedrooms or basements by student debt, unemployment or other factors not of their choosing.

“I found in college a lot of peers were completely unsure what they wanted to do,” said Jennings, who studies electrical engineering. “They founder around in school, majoring in things they may not be particularly interested in or don’t know how to turn into a career, and they ultimately graduate without a direction and don’t find a job and have to live at home.”

The Maryland native and Jeffrey, both long out of the nest, are happy to be in a different situation. And for them, like many in their 20s, marriage can wait. A fulfilling relationship and the benefits of shared living space have plenty to offer in the meantime.

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