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As a doe-eyed child, I regarded the college students I saw walking around Ann Arbor with admiration, in awe of their adultness. They seemed to exemplify all 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 under my belt, I have become increasingly aware of how far my expectations of my 20s have differed from reality, but also how experiencing your third decade during the 21st century is different from experiencing it at any other time in history.

When I was younger, I was convinced that by the time the first digit of my age was a “2,” I would magically feel like an adult. The term “adulting” is plastered across the internet. Often it is used by younger millennials to showcase the things they do that they identify as contributing to their adultness. It can be as simple as paying a bill or cooking dinner. Though one’s age may categorize them as an adult, doing tasks independently can help shift one’s mindset from the dependency of childhood to the independence of adulthood. These ordinary tasks that we consider “adulting” point to a generational delay in becoming independent of our parents and childhoods. While previous generations were spending their 20s starting families and buying homes, those in their 20s today are facing an entirely different society. External factors, such as the global economy and a shift in societal expectations, have changed the way many people are now spending their 20s. 

The financial circumstances millennials have faced — and the economy into which Generation Z is coming of age — are a huge contributing factor in making day-to-day “adult” tasks now feel like an accomplishment. The Great Recession impeded access to many of the markers of adulthood, like buying a house or getting married, that were once easily attainable in your 20s. The fallout of the financial crisis at the end of the 2010s and during the COVID-19 pandemic means 20-something-year-olds of the most recent generations have and will continue to spend their early 20s fighting against a tough job market, wage stagnation and rising costs of living. Additionally, student loan debt has become increasingly burdensome. Even in just the last decade, the cost of tuition has increased substantially and student loan debt has hit record highs. Millennials who used student loans to fund their education are now facing an average of $33,000 of debt per borrower. 

Being able to pay bills or land a high-paying job just by having a college degree is no longer a given. Because of that, hitting important, albeit “every day,” milestones of adulthood or being financially independent in your 20s are viewed as accomplishments. The financial instability of the youngest generations has put a pause on the things those in their 20s and 30s today grew up associating with adulthood, like marriage and owning a house.

I used to think I’d be married and starting a family by my mid-20s, but now that timeline seems completely unrealistic. The data shows many millennials are feeling the same way. Only 26% of current 18 to 32-year-olds are married. Compare that to the silent generation with 65% married during that same age period, and it is clear that the traditional markers of adulthood are no longer the basis of how people are spending their 20s today. Even the goal of buying a house, which has been propagated as a signifier of successfully transitioning into adulthood, no longer carries the same weight. In fact, millennials are facing lower rates of homeownership compared to previous generations. It’s not necessarily because desires have changed between generations, but because financially, things like marriage, starting a family and owning a home have become financially unattainable milestones for most 20-somethings to reach.  

The share of young adults living with their parents was already on the rise before it hit its peak in July 2020, which saw the highest rate of young adults living with their parents since the Great Depression. Progressing into a fully functioning adult is hard to do when you still rely on your parents as a resource while living at home during early adulthood. That’s why doing conventional things adults do, like scheduling your own doctor’s appointments or handling your own finances now feel like accomplishments rather than necessities. 

A major takeaway from the evolution 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 out of any other generation. Young adults are also setting a new precedent for incorporating more travel into their lives. Of all the generations, millennials, on average, take more trips and spend more on travel. While the financial circumstances millennials have grown up in — and Generation Z will come of age in — are the largest factor in differences in how their early adulthoods are playing out, young adults are also shifting their priorities. Things like attending graduate school and spending money on experiences, rather than tangible items like homes, exemplify how the younger generations are rewriting the rules of how to spend their 20s.

Doing this is necessary if we want to prevent future generations from being inhibited from reaching their goals due to the guilt of not achieving them fast enough. Basing your 20s on outdated metrics is easy when we spend our childhoods learning about the 20-somethings of previous generations and creating expectations based on their lifestyles. However, as the financial attainability of reaching major life milestones gets pushed off, it’s important that our expectations change as well. Feeling like a failure is common among millennials, and a big reason for that is because the societal expectations of what 20-somethings should be achieving have not caught up with the reality of how major financial setbacks are impacting the youngest generations. The generational changes in how people are spending their 20s should be a signal that life can and will look different for everyone, especially across generations.

Theodora Vorias is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at tvorias@umich.edu.