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Many Americans, especially older generations such as Baby Boomers, have the impression that emerging young adults, currently referred to as the Millennials of today are lazy and inferior to what they were when they themselves were of the same age. Are millennials lazy and inferior or is this idea just a misplaced perception formed from a cultural influence on beliefs? A Generations progression are shaped by the vigorous interplay of history and popular culture. Keith L Zabel stated that Baby boomers beliefs and attitudes were shaped by events like the Vietnam war, the push for civil rights for African-Americans, and assassinations of prominent leaders such as, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Robert Kennedy. Baby boomers according to Zabel were born in times of economic expansion, because of this, they believe that by simply working hard, one can create a better life for themselves and their family. Baby boomers as emerging adults viewed technology as a commodity and viewed work as a meaningful central part of life. Zabel states that millennials beliefs and attitudes have been shaped by the events of 911, the second Iraq war, and the election of Americas first African-American president. He goes on to further say that more than other generations, millennials value a work-life balance, the freedom that technology enables one to work from anywhere and they value job security less than previous generations. What we see here is that experiences help to shape individual’s generational beliefs and attitudes which are dependent upon the culture context one grows up in. The influence and introduction of social, political, and technological changes over the past few decades have structured emerging adult’s characteristics and behaviors. By clarifying the process that formed Millennials adulthood, we gain a clearer understanding of what it means to be an emerging adult in the Millennial generation.
Global and technological trends, economic changes, and constantly fluctuating social movements have influenced social and emotional development in humans. The Millennial generation’s common experiences have established their socio-cultural perspective. This perception has directed them into developing connection which have prompted their behaviors. Current literature acknowledges that individuals are influenced by and learn values from their parents and communities, and often share common core ideals throughout their lives. As emerging adults become aware of the world around them they experience culture differently than preceding generations. Forty years ago, during the Baby boomer’s generation, most 22 or 23-year old’s in industrialized societies were married, had at least one child, and were well on their way to a mortgage. A great deal has changed in recent decades in what people expect their lives to be like during their twenties. Jeffery Jensen Arnett, author of “Emerging adulthood: Understanding the New Way of Coming of Age” states that the social and institutional structures that once both supported and restricted people in the course of coming of age have weakened, leaving people with greater freedom but less support as they make their way into adulthood. The timing and meaning of adult status is different today than it was 40-100 years ago. The difference between the Millennial cohort and preceding generations is Millennials tendencies to explore their distinctiveness in ways that other generations did not. Millennials have been using this extended period of time to discover and form their distinctiveness, which has resulted in them becoming experiential learners. Past generations had opportunities to learn in a similar manner but not as freely, because their time to explore was drastically condensed into their college years. Past generations were restricted by timelines, expectations, and preconceived notions of how adults should live their lives and approach their futures. Millennials have now been afforded the capability to delve into a much longer journey into adulthood.
Perhaps the most common bias emerging onto young adults is that they are what Arnett refers to as “slackers.” Baby boomers are of the opinion that Millennials are slackers who according to Arnett, live a self-indulgent, materialistic lifestyle, with little regard for the world around them. We see this attitude in popular media like in the 2005 TIME magazine story which depicted an emerging adult man sitting in a sandbox and declaring, “They Just Won’t Grow Up.” Physician and advice writer Mel Levine (2005) warns apocalyptically that “Starting up into adulthood has never been more daunting than it is at present…The end result is that many adolescents seek an extension of their high school and/or college years. They just don’t want to pull away from their teens…The effects on work-life readiness may be catastrophic” (p.19) Here we see a shared attitude that emerging adults avoid work while preferring to sponge off their parents. This thinking presumes that young adults have an inflated sense of self entitlement and leads people to buy into the stereotype that Millennials are slackers.
Arnett states there is little doubt that it takes longer to reach full adulthood today than it did in the past. Reaching adulthood has become extended which is verifiable demographically, in terms of traditional transitions…finishing education, becoming finically independent from parents, marriage, and parenthood. In Arnett’s “The Psychology of Emerging Adulthood: What is Known and What Remains to be Known” he states that today’s emerging adults show college enrollment among 18-21 yr. old’s in the United States that are acquiring a post-secondary education rose from less than 5% in 1900, to over 60% in 2000. This trend shows that participation in higher education has risen substantially during the past century, especially over the past 50 years. Many of these emerging adults are working and going to school at the same time, while trying to chip away at their student debt which is currently the highest in U.S. history. We see a shift in twenty something’s moving back in with their parents, delaying marriage, switching jobs, moving, etc. Baby boomers see these transitions as unstable and a marker that Millennials are inferior to what they were like at the same age. However, Arnett shows us that one reason many people now wait until at least their late 20’s to marry and have their first child is that they are focused before that time on obtaining higher education to be able to find a desirable occupation upon completion. This suggest that the majority of twenty somethings in western cultures go through a waiting period between the transition from adolescence to adult status. The transition to adulthood has become delayed and subjective. Not because they are slackers, rather because they obtain post-secondary education. Millennials recognize that higher education is needed in order to obtain the best jobs in an information-based economy. They feel the pressure of Bachelor degrees not going as far and the need for further schooling and training. The economy has changed dramatically in recent decades, away from a Baby boomer era manufacturing base and toward valuing knowledge and information skills. Baby boomers could forgo a higher education and fall into a trade position in a high-paying manufacturing job that Millennials no longer have access to. Globalization with industrialized countries has made these jobs outsourced to developing countries or they have been eliminated by new technology. Economic prospects for emerging adults is grim during their twenties for those who don’t obtain a higher education which impede the establishment of a stable adult life.
According to Arnett and Elizabeth Fishel, by age 30 about 75 percent of young Americans have a marriage partner, at least one child and a stable long-term job. Most of the rest will reach these milestones some time in their early 30s. Therefore, it can be stated that there is no truth in statements claiming that Millennials are slackers who never grow up. The data findings suggest that the mind set of Millennials is based on a desire for educational growth through experiences and a belief that family is the nucleus of life and a support system for reasoning. These values align with their ideas on living an authentic existence, growth through their personal journeys, and focusing on self-values through a desire to serve in the best interest of all humanity. Arnett and Fishel go on to further say that emerging adults just want to make use of their emerging adult freedom while they have the chance — go to a different part of the country or the world to live for a while, aim for a long-shot profession such as musician or actor, or just work a low-pay, low-stress job for a while and have a lot of fun with friends. That’s not contemptible; it’s wise, and we don’t give them enough credit for their wisdom. Arnett shows us that the typical “adult” markers of leaving home, such as, getting married, and having children are no longer an indicator that individuals have entered into adulthood. In the past half century according to Arnett’s demographic outline, the age period from 18 through mid-20’s has changed from a Baby boomer era of being a time of settling down into adult roles of marriage, parenthood, careers, and permanent residence to being a time that is a period of exploration and instability. Emerging adults instead are spending their time trying out various possible love interest and work environments before making life long commitments. We see that twenty somethings are more than ready to trade their carefree freedom for the rewards of enduring bonds to others, they are just methodically taking their time to achieve this.
This paper offers several important insights concerning the millennial generation’s transition into adulthood, however continued study is suggested to validate these findings. Recommendations for future study include longitudinal scale studies over decades focusing on generational changes in regards to behavior and attitudes as these cohort’s transition into adulthood. These studies should include large and diverse generational samples to accurately reflect the birth cohort for which they represent. Data needs to be collected intermittently over decades to identify fluctuations and whether they are a result of generational changes, life changed, or cultural shifts as the generation transitions into adulthood. Millennials have the opportunity to construct the future. They have the motivation to compose and contribute something of true value to the world. Millennials transformational journeys have resulted in common experiences which implies that their perseverance and altruistic nature has resulted in an ethos of group loyalty and, consequently, the building of stronger communities. It is in all researcher’s best interest to consider that stereotyping should be carefully supported by evidence before assumption of accuracy. Misinformed public opinion can result in an abundance of negativity, thereby causing tension between the generations. Over reliance on opinion rather than empirical evidence as a result of research inaccuracies can impair and exacerbate generational divides.
- Arnett, J. J. (2006). Emerging adulthood: Understanding the new way of coming of age. In J. J. Arnett & J. L. Tanner (Eds.), Emerging adults in America: Coming of age in the 21st century. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press.
- Arnett, J. J. (2007). Suffering, Selfish, Slackers? Myths and Reality About Emerging Adults
- Arnett & Elizabeth Fishel (May, 9, 2011). Are your kids more Lazy, Spoiled, and Childish then past Generations? The complex reality behind twenty something stereotypes. https://www.aarp.org/relationships/friends-family/infor-05-2011/myths-about-young-adults.htmlReferences
- Zabel, K., Biermeier-Hanson, B., Baltes, B., Early, B., Shepard, A. (2016). Generational Differences in Work Ethic: Fact or Fiction? Journal Business Psychology, 32, 301-315. Doi:10.1007/s10869-016-9466-5.
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