Careers

Today's young adults are different, but not for the reasons you might think

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Andrew Burton | Getty Images

Becoming a grown up means something very different than it used to.

That's according to "The Changing Economics and Demographics of Young Adulthood: 1975–2016," a report released this month by the United States Census Bureau.

The report looks at how both the realities and perceived markers of adulthood have evolved over the past four decades, focusing on adults ages 18 to 34. The conclusion is that it may not be adulthood that's evolved, but the avenues by which it's reached.

"If one theme describes how adulthood has changed over the last 40 years, it is growing complexity," states the report. "In 1975, there was one predominant adult milestone — family formation — that people largely experienced during their 20s.

"Today, while the milestones have remained the same, the pathways are more diverse."

An adult today is educated and employed, though not necessarily married or a parent

A majority of Americans view education and employment as "extremely important milestones of adulthood," while more than half of young Americans believe that "marrying and having children are not very important in order to become an adult."

Most still marry, eventually, but singleness lasts longer. In the 1970s, 80 percent of Americans married by age 30. Now that same percentage will be married by 45.

Still, we're not totally sure what the age of maturity is

A majority of Americans believe individuals should finish school and be employed full-time by a median age of 22, but when asked when individuals should become financially independent, a majority of Americans responded with a median age of 21.

One might argue those aged 21 and 22 are being set up to fail.

"What is clear," notes the report, "is that most Americans believe young people should accomplish economic milestones before starting a family."

For young adults in the labor force, success varies

More young people are employed full-time overall, but women have been the "driving force" behind that growth. In 1975, just under 50 percent of young women were employed. Now that share is above two-thirds.

Further, forty years ago essentially all of the women out of the labor force were occupied as homemakers, and now that percentage is less than half. Over the same period, the fraction of young women between the ages of 25 and 34 serving as homemakers fell from 43 percent to 14 percent.

"While the milestones have remained the same, the pathways are more diverse." -The Changing Economics and Demographics of Young Adulthood: 1975–2016

In 1975, a quarter of young men between the ages of 25 and 34 earned less than $30,000 per year in 2015 dollars. Now, about 41 percent of young men make less than $30,000.

Over the same period, the number of young men earning between $30,000 and $59,000 fell to just over a third, from nearly half.

But while women's fortunes have increased while men's have declined, the genders haven't reached parity. Though young women have gotten a raise, they still only earn a median income of $29,000, which is $11,000 less than the median income of their male counterparts.

Defining financial independence

About a third of those between the ages of 18 and 34 rely on their parents for financial assistance, and that share may actually be larger, as "financial independence" means different things to different people.

"Young people may omit the financial help from their parents," says the report, "such as a down payment for a mortgage or help paying the rent or other bills, when reporting their income. This kind of help should not be underestimated."

When will those millennials ever move out?

Living at home, as the millennial stereotype goes, is the most common arrangement, with one third of young adults, or 24 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 34, living with their parents in 2015. Of this group, one in four, roughly 2.2 million people, is described as "idle," meaning they neither work nor attend school.

As recently as 2005, the bulk of that age group lived in their own households. Now, there are just six states where the majority of young adults live on their own.

But just because this group is living with their parents longer than previous generations doesn't mean they plan to forever. The fastest-growing arrangement for those in this age bracket is living with a romantic partner to whom they are not married. Those who are 18-to-34 typically seek this type of arrangement at around the time previous generations would have married, which indicates "they are trading marriage for cohabitation."

And for those at home, it's not all bad: The report notes that two thirds of those who live with their parents consider themselves "very happy with their family life."