In today's Washington Post, columnist Robert J. Samuelson writes that this "is not a good time to be starting out in life." He points to the high unemployment and underemployment rates and the fact that more young people appear to be putting off marriage and parenthood. While he says 20-somethings could still bounce back as the economy does, he asks: "Could this become a lost generation?"
There are, however, more positive signs amid the dismal statistics that he cites, and reasons to think that 20-somethings don't need to throw in the towel on the rest of their lives just yet. The top three are the heavy involvement of their parents, the rise of entrepreneurism, and the freedom to carve their own path beyond the traditional milestones of adulthood. (At least some of the delayed marriages and births represent personal choice, and not economic necessity.)
First, parents: Much has been written about the increased involvement of 20-somethings' moms and dads. They've been called helicopter parents and accused of treating their grown children like toddlers in need of constant assistance. There's no denying that given the rough economy, adult children rely on their parents for longer, if they are lucky enough to be able to do so. The consulting form Twentysomething Inc. has reported that 85 percent of new grads move back home to their parents' house after graduation, which means they can save on rent and living costs while they job-hunt.
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Young people with the luxury of parental support appear far better able to weather the economic storm. In their 2011 book Not Quite Adults, authors Richard Settersten and Barbara Ray point out that parental help can make the crucial difference to twenty-somethings at the beginning of their working lives. "If you feel like you need to take the first job that comes along, then you can just tread water and never really get ahead," Ray told U.S. News.
In her new book, Mission: Adulthood: How the 20-Somethings of Today Are Transforming Work, Love, and Life, journalist Hannah Seligson also finds that help from parents is crucial. "The big divide between the "haves" and "have nots" in Gen Y are between those whose parents can subsidize them through a few starter jobs and apartments [and those whose parents can't support them]," she says.
The second theme, entrepreneurism, is just as crucial. Starting a business on the side, whether it's through a website such as Etsy or a coaching business marketed through a personal blog, is easier to do than ever. Young people frustrated with their job options in the traditional marketplace can supplement their income and skill-building by launching their own business. The Young Entrepreneur Council and Buzz Marketing Group have found that many are doing just that. In their survey, two in ten of young adults said that they started a business because they were unemployed, and more than one in three said they run a side business, such as selling on eBay or tutoring.
The third and final theme emerging from today's 20-somethings is their freedom to make lifestyle choices that work for them, as opposed to ticking off the traditional markers of adulthood, including marriage, home ownership, and having children. The Pew Research Center has found that a significant chunk of young people are putting off marriage and children; they might just be waiting until they are financially ready. Unlike perhaps their grandparents, they don't feel like they "have" to tie the knot at a certain age, or become parents. And that might not be entirely a bad thing.
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To return to Samuelson's question of whether or not 20-somethings are a "lost generation," the positive themes to emerge out of these economic doldrums seem to push the answer towards a resounding "no." This generation of young people is not lost, they are just still finding their way.
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