Why Millennials Aren't Growing Up

Robin Marantz Henig and her daughter Samantha explore how millenials approach careers, marriage, and economics.

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Today's twentysomethings are taking longer than their predecessors to complete school, leave the nest, become financially independent, and start families. As baby boomers' children come of age, their parents are concerned that they're in an extended adolescence. ­In Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?, Robin Marantz Henig, the author of nine books, and her daughter Samantha Henig, a twentysomething journalist, explore how young adults are approaching careers, marriage, and economics. The authors recently spoke to U.S. News on whether Millennials are experiencing their twenties in a distinct, unprecedented way. Excerpts:

Robin, in 2010 you wrote a provocative piece for the New York Times Magazine titled "What Is It About 20-Somethings?" that went viral. Why did you follow up with a book now?

Robin: Young people are occupying a lot of our attention these days. They're suffering under student debt at greater rates than ever before, and they're experiencing unemployment at greater rates than the rest of the population, so everybody is very concerned. You're also hearing a lot about them living in their parents' basements, being slackers, never being able to grow up. There was so much attention focused on them that it seemed like a good time to write a book analyzing what it's really like to be that age.

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Some research says "emerging adulthood" is the reason young adults are taking longer to grow up. What is that?

Robin: That's what got me to the topic to begin with. I hadn't heard about this idea that maybe there was a new developmental life stage that young people were going through that hadn't been around in previous generations. The idea is that because things have slowed down, because education has become more protracted, because we don't expect young people to work right away, there is a new stage of life called emerging adulthood, just as about 100 years earlier those same factors led to a new stage of life called adolescence.

What else is so different about being a young adult these days?

Robin: What's significantly different is technology. First, the Internet changes the way people interact with friends and co-workers. Internet dating makes it clear that there's always an endless-seeming pool of potential mates. You always know what your friends are doing that you're not doing, so they're living in this constantly connected world. The other kind of technology that makes a big difference is reproductive technology. It makes young women and men think that they can wait for a very long time before thinking about whom to settle down with, when to start having kids. When that horizon extends, everything else slows down, your sense of urgency about finding a job and settling down and buying a house and those other things that in my generation we thought had to be in place before the age 30 deadline.

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So when is the best time to start a family?

Robin: I was really struck when we did our research by one study in particular. It turns out your definition of "best" determines what your answer to that question is. If you're looking at the best age for the mother's long-term health and longevity, it's surprisingly old; it's like 34. And if you're also looking at what the best age is in terms of her long-term earnings, later is better. The difficulty is that your fertility really does decline after your mid-20s.

Why does starting at the bottom and slowly climbing the corporate ladder not work for many young adults?

Robin: Many things about the work culture are different. If you're online, you're expected to be available all the time. That never existed in my day; even in a pretty high-powered job, you would leave at 5 or 6 and not deal with work again until the next morning. So what seems to be changing is that it's possible now to start higher up or in a more creative place or to just begin something, to be the CEO of your app-development company or your online sales company. Those old truisms are something that need to be looked at again.