A perfect storm of poor economic timing and cultural shifts has led 30-year-olds to delay several traditional measures of adulthood, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.
Thirty-somethings today are more likely to be single, childless and renters — and make less money than their peers in decades past.
In 1975, nearly three out of four 30-year-olds had at some point married, had a child, finished school, and lived on their own. In 2015, just one in three 30-year-olds have all those characteristics, the Census reports.
But more 30-year-olds today have earned at least a high school diploma (90 percent) and are active in the labor force (81 percent), according to the data.
The main issue for many has been timing, according to Jason Dorsey, co-founder of The Center for Generational Kinetics, a millennials research firm. More millennials are going to college and some are staying beyond four years, delaying their entry into the workforce, Dorsey said.
“It basically is delaying your entire career,” he said.
When his firm surveys millennials, the most frequent reason they give for delaying life steps like marriage and kids is a desire to be financially stable first.
Years spent on higher education also are years of accumulating debt instead of assets.
“You don’t want to start a family with huge debt,” said Jessica Blimbaum of Dayton.
The 29-year-old software consultant is married and owns a home with her husband, but they aren’t ready to have children, she said.
In her experience, the Dayton market is slightly ahead of others in terms of homeownership among young people because it’s so affordable. But many millennials are buying while still single.
“It’s a seismic shift in how a generation is entering adulthood,” Dorsey said, and it was helped along by the recession.
A college graduate who turned 30 in 2015 likely entered the workforce in 2007 or 2008. If they found a job, they probably saw stagnation in terms of raises and promotions for the first few years of their career, said Richard Stock, director of the Business Research Group at the University of Dayton.
“Those people are sort of behind at some level in terms of asset accumulation,” Stock said. And the delay occurs across income levels because more educated individuals also have more college debt, he said.
Working millennials also are dealing with competition factors their parents didn’t encounter.
“Historically one group leaves the workforce and another comes in,” Dorsey said.
But baby boomers aren’t all leaving. Add in global competition, automation of many jobs and stagnated wages compared to inflation, he said, and it’s not hard to see why this generation lags economically.
The latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the unemployment rate for 18 to 29-year-olds — including those who have given up looking for work — is 12.5 percent. The national unemployment rate for all ages in June was 5.1 percent. Neither number is seasonally adjusted.
Moving back home
The economic causes for what Dorsey describes as “delayed adulthood,” are easier to identify than the cultural changes, Stock said.
While there was a profound cultural gap between baby boomers and their parents, that gap may be smaller for millennials and their boomer parents, he said, meaning cultural taboos such as living together before marriage are lessened.
“This generation is just more concerned about themselves and becoming successful before settling down and buying a house,” said Amanda Burneka, 21 and a student at Ohio State University.
And societal norms have shifted so that it’s okay to move back home or have a kid but not get married, Dorsey said, adding that there is an element of coddling on the part of boomer parents: “The baby boomers want it to be easier for us than it was for them.”
That results in more willingness to allow adult children to move back home.
“Sadly there are also a few moochers in our generation who fit the spoiled and entitled stereotype who have no desire to look for employment in our economy, are not in school, etc.,” said Neha Chandra, 34.
A financial analyst for the Department of Defense, Chandra is not married and has no children. She noted she’s not an anomaly among her friends of the same age.
“Our generation does not have the same amount of pressure to be married by a certain time in our lives. While many of my peers are married and starting families, interestingly enough, I am seeing more of those who are not.”
Career opportunities for women also have had an impact, she said, so they don’t feel the need to be married to support themselves.
Stock noted that the census’ year of comparison, 1975, fell squarely in the middle of the explosion of women in the workplace, likely accounting for much of the increase in labor force participation by 30-year-olds from then to now.
What this delayed adulthood will mean down the road remains to be seen. The Center for Generational Kinetics predicts the average age of first marriage for millennials will exceed the age of 30.
Census data already shows the population in the Dayton region and nationwide is getting older, not only because young people are leaving, but because those who stay may be choosing not to have children.
“There are definitely indications that it’s more than a delay,” Stock said.
Delays in starting a family can affect many variables, Dorsey said, from the type of car people choose to buy to how long they remain in the workforce.
“We still don’t fully understand the ramifications of this,” he said. “If you’re 36 and having your first child … will you ever be able to retire?”
Stock wonders how the housing choices of this generation will impact construction, a big pillar of the economy.
“That’s the thing that is driving the builders crazy,” he said. “What kind of housing are these people going to want when they decide to buy in five years?”
As retiring baby boomers downsize and spend less, it will be up to millennials to drive of the economy, Dorsey said. He and Stock agree that there is no need for panic because this generation will catch up economically, just on a four- or five-year delay.
“There’s a particular degree of impatience with the ‘poor me’ attitude of recent college graduates … they are going to be perfectly fine in the long run,” Stock said.