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Millennials Turn 30: It's Not Us, It's the Economy

Turning 30 used to mean hitting your stride as an adult. But for many of the nation’s millennials, it feels like being stuck in adolescence.
Erika and Ben Trowell leave their apartment in Phoenix, Ariz., to head to work. The couple shares a car because they can't afford another one.
Erika and Ben Trowell leave their apartment in Phoenix, Ariz., to head to work. The couple shares a car because they can't afford another one.

Turning 30 used to mean hitting your stride as an official adult. But for many of the country’s millennials, it feels like being stuck in perpetual late adolescence.

Marriage eludes many. Children? Not anytime soon. Most millennials have some sort of job, but for many a career seems unobtainable. A home of their own? Lots of them have had to move back in with mom and dad or shack up with roommates. That’s not the place where many millennials expected or wanted to be as they hit their fourth decade.

“We have plans that we’re working toward. It’s just so slow,” said Erika Hall Trowell, a 31-year-old living in Phoenix, who after two layoffs and a sharp pay cut figures she and her husband are at least several years behind on their goals.

Of course, some millennials have managed to navigate the early years of adulthood just fine. But for many, 30 is looking a lot like 20 used to as the generation that began with so much promise has fallen behind on nearly every adult milestone.

What happened? The major culprit, say many millennials: The lousy economy.

Even as the economy improves, years of economic malaise have left many millennials unemployed, underemployed or just lower on the career ladder than they had hoped to be at this age. Many are burdened by debt, unable to afford a house and too consumed by uncertainty to meet all the adult milestones yet.

Milllennials including Trowell say they aspire to the same things their parents’ generation had — and bristle when older Americans say they are lazy, or lack drive and ambition.

“It’s kind of a disillusionment that we’re facing,” Trowell said. “We were told that you can be anything you want, and now here we are and you can’t find a job.”

Millennials are loosely defined as the generation of adults born in the 1980s; the older ones of the bunch are now in their 30s. Experts say they’ve been hit particularly hard by the difficult economy because they have launched their careers at a time when job prospects are so dim.

The unemployment rate for younger workers has generally been higher than for older workers throughout the recession and recovery, and those who are working have likely started off lower on the ladder, and making less money, than they might have in a better economy.

Although they have decades to catch up, economists say a slow start in the working world can have a lifelong impact on a person’s earnings potential.

“My whole outlook is, it’s all very delayed,” said Chris Quinn, 31, a talent manager for a large advertising agency in Chicago, who after years of furloughs and other setbacks finally feels like he is on a path to making big life decisions about things like buying a house and getting married.

For many, even now, it remains tough just to get a job.

About 74 percent of the oldest millennials — those who are currently ages 25 to 32 — were employed in 2013, according to an analysis of government data prepared by Pew Research Center. That’s down from 79 percent who were employed in 2007.

Experts say the problem is compounded for those like Trowell who lack a college education, which is considered a minimum requirement now for many jobs that didn’t require it in the past.

Job losses and pay cuts

Erika Trowell and her husband, Ben, 29, say they expected by now to have already paid off their debts, bought a house, settled into good jobs and perhaps even started raising children.

Instead, the couple is still struggling to whittle down the last of Ben’s student loans plus credit card debt they accrued when times were tougher for them.

Even their wedding was delayed, and downsized, after Erika was laid off in 2008 and their wedding fund went to paying the bills.

Their finances remain tight. Erika currently makes $12 an hour as an operations secretary for a Phoenix restaurant chain. She said she hasn’t received a raise since starting there in 2009. That’s down from $18 an hour at the job she lost in 2008.

Ben, who has a college degree, makes $15 an hour working as a graphic designer for the same company. But he only works 29 hours and 59 minutes a week, below the 30 hours a week that would require his company to offer him health insurance benefits.

The couple said it’s too pricey to add him to her plan for anything more than vision and dental, but he’s hoping to eventually sign up for Obamacare.

They rent a modest apartment near downtown Phoenix and have been sharing one car since their second vehicle broke down several years ago and repairs proved too costly. They don’t have cable TV, though they do have Netflix. On weekends, they often visit a favorite used bookstore where they can sell books they’ve read and buy a few new ones with the profits.

They fret about being one health emergency or job loss away from financial ruin.

“If one big thing happens to us we’re not going to be able to handle it,” Erika said.

The couple say they are grateful for many things — their health, their compatibility and at least earning enough to not have to move back in with parents.

Decline in living independently

About 46.6 percent of older millennials ages 25 to 32 were heading their own household as of March 2013, down from 47.9 percent of people in that age range who headed their own home in 2007, according to a Pew analysis of government data.

Some older millennials may be sharing a home with roommates or a romantic partner, but a rising number are staying at their parents’ home.

About 16 percent of 25- to 31-year-old millennials were living at home in 2012, according to Pew, up from 13.8 percent in 2007.

“There is this notion that there’s been a change in cultural trends- that it’s more acceptable now to live with Mom and Dad,” said Pew economist Robert Fry. “Possibly, but it’s also very clear that … living with Mom and Dad is related to sort of how you’re faring in the job market.”

Katie Stanton, 26, lives with her parents in Darien, Ill., because her part-time, retail job doesn’t pay enough for her to afford to live on her own. Like many millennials, she fumes at the notion that she just wants to rely on her parents, or isn’t trying hard enough to find a career that uses her college degree.

“It’s annoying to hear that because it’s like, ‘You don’t know what I’ve been doing,’” Stanton said. “It’s hard not to get defensive when I hear those arguments."

Delaying marriage and children

Millennials also are getting married later. In 2013, the median age of a first marriage was 29 for men and 26.6 for women, according to Pew data. That’s up significantly from just 18 years ago, when the median age of first marriage was 26.9 years old for men and 24.5 years old for women.

That’s partly the result of a long-term trend toward later, and less, marriage – but some millennials also say they have put off weddings because of economic concerns.

The recession also may be playing a role in delaying people’s decisions to have kids. The birth rate for women ages 25 to 29 fell steadily between 2008 and 2012, echoing an overall slowdown in births. Experts say it’s common for people to delay having children when the economy slows, but it’s not yet clear whether millennials will make up for lost time later on.

The Trowells are still hopeful that they will end up being able to achieve their version of the American dream: Steady work, a modest home and at least one child. They are trying to be patient. “It’s taking way longer than I expected,” Erika said.