An intriguing study from Oregon State University (OSU) has found that young adults today have more in common with their grandparents than perhaps with their parents, because their current life stage—fraught with financial insecurity, lower wages and the need to live at home longer—mirrors that of early 20th century more than that of their Baby Boomer parents.
However, the study authors say, while young adults in the past stayed home to help support their parents, today the opposite occurs. Furthermore, they add, the pattern of life stage and adulthood indicates that Baby Boomers are an anomaly—their early emergence into adulthood is rare when compared to the pattern of human development over the years.
Baby Boomers enjoyed a post World War II plethora of high-paying jobs, and the prosperous economy erased lines between educational attainment—high school grads and college grads seemed to have equal chances of finding careers offering good wages and decent benefits.
Why today’s late emergence into adulthood? Is it the difficult economy?
“It’s easy to focus on the economy as the culprit in creating patterns of delay of ‘adulthood,” says study author Richard A. Settersten, Jr., professor of human development and family sciences at OSU. Settersten co-authored the study with Barbara Ray, president of Hired Pen, Inc, an academic publishing company.
However, it has played a role in creating dialogue that brings issues affecting young adults to light, he adds.
“What the economy has done is heighten a set of trends that have been emerging for several decades,” Settersten says. “Consider living at home longer or coming back to live with parents later. That’s not a new thing. It’s been growing since the 1980s.”
These tough times have perhaps provided some comfort to families who find it challenging for offspring gain socially defined means of independence.
“The economy becomes a safe way for kids and parents alike to justify living at home if people feel stigmatized by it,” he notes. “People get that hard economic times mean that people’s life circumstances change. And they focus so much on living at home because leaving home has traditionally been the sure sign of independence—and independence has, in turn, traditionally been the sure sign of adulthood. That link creates concern.”
While young adults in the past who gained independence later in life stayed home to help their parents, today there has been a role reversal. In fact, new research reveals that parents across economic strata are spending about 10 percent of their annual income to help their adult children.
“Parents are now being called on to provide financial and other kinds of assistance to their young adult children,” Ray said in a public statement. “A century ago, the opposite was true. Then, young adults often helped their parents when they went to work and especially if they still lived together.”
The study findings have “struck a chord” with people, Settersten says.
“This article [presents] the provocative idea that something about the lives of young people today could be even remotely similar to young adults so long ago,” he explains. “That, and the ‘a-ha’ moment that the middle of the last century and the Boomers might be the anomalies.”
“Of course there are tremendous differences between then and now, so it’s ultimately also hard to compare them,” he concedes. “Still, it’s fascinating to contemplate.”