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Failure to launch: Why so many American millennials feel adulthood is a lie

Many younger Americans feel like the economic and emotional benefits promised by adulthood are overrated.
Image: Graduates Celebrate On The Southbank
Those were the days.Dan Kitwood / Getty Images file

Earlier this spring, Mark and Christina Rotondo went to court in upstate New York to attempt to forcibly evict their 30-year-old son Michael. It’s an absurd example in most respects, but there’s something about the story that resonates, however metaphorically, for millennials in America. We may not all be fighting tooth and nail to stay in our parents’ homes against their will, but we’ve failed to launch in ways both economic and emotional — verging, I’d argue, on the metaphysical.

Case in point, a few months ago, I was visiting Los Angeles and met an old college friend for dinner in Silver Lake. He and I hadn’t seen each other since 2006, when we were both 24 years old. Yet somehow almost nothing had changed. Neither of us have kids yet. Neither of us are quite where we imagined we’d be, professionally, at 36. We’re both still hustling for cash and projects – still waiting to “arrive,” whatever that means.

“I swear I don’t even feel like an adult,” he confessed. “Like, I don’t think of myself as one of the grownups.”

“Me either,” I confessed right back. “My mom had five kids by the time she was my age. My dad was starting his second career. And I’m still punching in my parents’ landline at CVS to get the discount.”

That makes us a vanguard of sorts — the first millennials to peek over the hill and get a view of what comes next. But what if, when it comes to adulthood, there’s no there there?

Born in the early 1980s, my friend and I are on the oldest end of the millennial generation, roughly defined as those born between 1980 and 2000. That makes us a vanguard of sorts — the first millennials to peek over the hill and get a view of what comes next. But what if, when it comes to adulthood, there’s no there there? It can’t just be the two of us who in some sense are still stuck in some hazy pre-adulthood limbo — my sense is many millennials feel as if adulthood is somehow eluding us, as if we’re adrift somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. As Michael Hobbes wrote for HuffPost's Highline last December: “I am 35 years old — the oldest millennial, the first millennial — and for a decade now, I’ve been waiting for adulthood to kick in.” Ditto.

Compared to the boomers, it does seem like many millennials are moving in slow motion. We’re marrying later than our parents. We’re half as likely to own homes as young adults were in 1975. But we haven’t just fallen behind the preceding generation. According to The Economist, “Americans currently aged between 30 and 39 years of age are calculated to have amassed 46% less wealth on average in 2017 than the equivalent cohort had gathered in 2007."

All this has led to so many think pieces and news stories that the internet is now rife with lists of all the things millennials are supposed to have failed, denied, ruined and destroyed. Not just marriage, home ownership and other conventional markers of adulthood, but also yogurt, beer, napkins and chain restaurants. It’s enough to make you wonder if millennials aren’t also destroying adulthood itself, calling BS on the whole enterprise.

It’s about the relentless economics in which we came of age and the lasting skepticism those economics have, I believe, instilled in us. Take our $1 trillion-plus in student loan debt. No one told us that our education would be part of a massive cash grab orchestrated by high education fat cats. Once this becomes clear, however, you start to question other things as well. It’s not a coincidence that the first generation to carry so much debt so young is the one that occupied Wall Street (as well as a few old hippies, it must be said).

As Malcolm Harris pointed out in his 2017 book “Kids These Days,” the best millennial slogan is the one that animated those protests: “Everything is fucked up and bullshit.” It sounds juvenile, even puerile, until you consider how true it can be. To my ear at least, it’s the cri de couer of the less deceived — less a complaint than an observation.

It’s also a refrain that makes sense. Just as millennials were supposed to be entering the workforce, we were hit with the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. We were sold on the idea that getting a so-called good education would set us up for success in the working world. We could have everything our parents had, if we only followed their example and pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. They were giving us the map to financial freedom, and most of us listened. (Of course, not all millennials have or had access to loans and college education.)

We were sold on the idea that getting a good education would set us up for success in the working world. We could have everything our parents had, if we only followed their example and pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps.

It might have worked, too, if the price of that education didn’t rise to become completely unaffordable at the same time unemployment doubled from five percent to 10 percent. But our student loans didn’t go away just because the job market did; instead of being given the roadmap to financial freedom, we were given a map that drove us straight into a trap.

While our income potential declined, basic living expenses didn’t, and it set our generation back years from where we “should have been.” From where we were told we would have been.

If this is the reality of adulthood, if this is where following the advice of parents, teachers and the government got us, why wouldn’t we be cynical about all of its markers and accessories? The expectations gap between the fantasy progression of going to school then getting a well paying job then building our own nest eggs, and the reality of going to school, waiting years for a well paying job (for those of us lucky to get one at all) and building a nest egg for our creditors is simply too great to ignore.

Besides, have you seen what’s passing for a grownup these days? Apparently believing and proliferating insane conspiracy theories or bullying coworkers on social media is par for the professional course. And the U.S. president is only the most prominent example. Before she was unceremoniously dumped by ABC, Roseanne Barr had spent years using social media as a platform for a slew of bigoted comments and ideas it would be generous to call far-fetched. Meanwhile, recently fired EPA administrator Scott Pruitt amassed a staggering list of alleged ethical violations while still enjoying praise from his boss for doing a “fantastic job.” And don’t get me started on Gen X-er Kanye West — because where to even begin?

Though Pew Research has no numbers on this, my sense is that grownups’ numbers are in steep decline. Fewer people than ever seem capable of discerning between fantasy and reality, which is something we generally rely on adults to do. “By my reckoning, the solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half,” wrote Kurt Anderson in The Atlantic last year.

We’re living in an off-the-map world. Don’t let people convince you otherwise. I trust no one who claims to have it all figured out. I certainly don’t — it’s part of why I feel like I’m somehow not an adult, still, at 36. Instead of a magic moment of arrival, the last few years have resulted in a deepening sense of the confusion and uncertainty. There are adult parts of my life, of course. I’ve been married for a dozen years, been at the same job for eight years — I send Christmas cards. But there’s an uncertainty I can’t shake, and am frankly not sure I ever will, or that my generation ever will. The world is just too weird now.

“When do you think you’ll feel like an adult?” I asked my friend.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe when I’m 46, another ten years from now?”

It was an arbitrary number, an open question. Because that was all it could be.

Catherine Baab-Muguira is an advertising copywriter and freelance writer. Find her on Twitter or her website.