It’s time to reconceive our 20s

As a doe-eyed child, I gazed at the college students I saw walking around Ann Arbor with admiration, awe of their adulthood. They seemed to exemplify all of the things I attributed to the benefits of growing up, like having your own car or the freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want. With a few years of my 20s, I become more and more aware of how much my expectations of my 20s differ from reality, but also how experiencing your third decade in the 21st story.

When I was younger, I believed that if the first digit of my age was “2”, I would magically feel like an adult. The term “adult” is widely used on the Internet. Often it is used by younger millennials to showcase the things they do, that they identify as contributing to their growing up. It can be so easy to pay a bill or cook dinner. Although age categorizes them as adults, doing things on their own can help shift the mindset from childhood addiction to adult independence. These common tasks, which we call “adult”, indicate a generation delay in becoming independent of our parents and childhood. While previous generations spent their 20s raising families and buying houses, today’s 20s are facing a completely different society. External factors such as the global economy and changing societal expectations have changed the way many people today spend their 20s.

The financial circumstances millennials have faced – and the economy that Generation Z is growing up in – are hugely contributing to the fact that “adults” ‘daily chores now feel like an accomplishment. The Great Recession hampered access to many of the features of adulthood, such as buying a home or getting married, that were once easily achievable at 20. The effects of the financial crisis in the late 2010s and during the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in the youngest generation of 20-year-olds in their early 20s having to and will struggle against a tough job market, wage stagnation and rising cost of living. In addition, student loan debt has become increasingly onerous. Even in the past decade, tuition fees have increased significantly and student loan debt has reached record highs. Millennials who used student loans to fund their education now face an average of $ 33,000 in debt per borrower.

Paying bills or getting a well-paid job with just a university degree is no longer a given. For this reason, important, albeit “daily” milestones of growing up or financial independence in your twenties are viewed as achievements. The financial instability of the youngest generation has brought things to a standstill today of growing up in their twenties and thirties, such as marriage and home ownership.

I used to think I’d be married and have a family in my mid-twenties, but now that schedule seems totally unrealistic. The data shows that many millennials feel the same way. Only 26% of the current 18 to 32 year olds are married. Compare that to the silent generation, where 65% were married the same age, and it’s clear that the traditional traits of adulthood are no longer the basis of how people spend their 20s today. The goal of buying a house, propagated as a signifier for the successful transition into adulthood, no longer has the same weight. In fact, millennials are facing lower home ownership rates compared to previous generations. This is not necessarily because desires have changed between generations, but because things like marriage, starting a family, and owning a home have become financially unattainable milestones for most 20-year-olds.

The proportion of young adults living with their parents had already increased before it peaked in July 2020, the highest rate of young adults living with their parents since the Great Depression. Rising to a fully functioning adult is difficult when you still rely on your parents as a resource in early adulthood while you live at home. Therefore, conventional things that adults do, like planning their own doctor’s appointments or managing their own finances, now feel like accomplishments rather than necessities.

An important finding from the development of how different generations have spent their 20s is that people are becoming more open to not following a linear life path. For one thing, millennials are the most educated generation of any other generation. Young adults are also setting a new precedent for incorporating more travel into their lives. Of all generations, Millennials, on average, travel more and spend more on travel. While the financial circumstances Millennials grew up in – and Generation Z will grow up – is the biggest factor in the differences in their early adulthood development, young adults are also shifting their priorities. Things like attending graduate school and spending money on experiences and intangible things like home are examples of how the younger generations are rewriting the rules for dealing with their twenties.

This is necessary if we are to prevent future generations from being prevented from achieving their goals due to the guilt of not reaching them quickly enough. Basing your 20s on stale metrics is easy when we spend our childhood learning about previous generation 20s and raising expectations based on their lifestyle. However, as the financial reachability of reaching important life milestones is postponed, it is important that our expectations also change. Millennials often feel like they have failed, and a big reason is that societal expectations of what 20-year-olds should achieve have not caught up with the reality of how major financial setbacks affect the youngest generations. The generational shift in the way people spend their 20s should be a signal that life can and will be different for everyone, especially across generations.

Theodora Vorias is an opinion columnist and can be reached at