Many life milestones are out of millennials’ reach

WASHINGTON — We want to move out. We want to own our home. We want to marry. We want to work.

The problem is, many of us can’t.

America’s young adults have gotten a lot of flak for missing many of the milestones that earlier generations checked off with ease.

We aren’t getting even entry-level jobs, which could enable us to pay our own bills. Not only are we not buying houses, many of us aren’t renting, either: About a third of millennials still live with their parents, earning us the irksome epithet “boomerang generation” — a play on “boomer generation,” the presumed victim here.

We’re hanging out in our beleaguered parents’ basements rather than marrying and starting legally recognized unions of our own. Marriage rates have skidded downward, with a little more than a quarter of 18- to 35-year-olds ball-and-chained in 2012, compared with about 40 percent at the dawn of the millennium, according to calculations from the president’s Council of Economic Advisers. Partly as a result, more than half of the country is presently single, the first time this has been the case since the government began keeping track in 1976. (Singlehood hasn’t stopped many of us from continuing to reproduce, of course.)

To some, this arrested development is evidence of a prolonged adolescence and a rejection of self-sufficiency, perhaps encouraged by indulgent “helicopter parenting.” According to a recent Reason-Rupe survey, about three-quarters of America’s young adults consider millennials to be “responsible” and “hardworking,” while just half of older adults agree. If character isn’t the issue, perhaps it’s misplaced preferences: We millennials have set aside the ideals of an “ownership society” in favor of the hippy-dippy values of a “sharing economy.” We rent, borrow or share our textbooks, cars and even dinner leftovers, so why would we bother buying a home or permanently attaching ourselves to a single romantic partner?

Recent data, though, suggest that these standard, American-dream-style signposts still retain an incredibly strong hold over young people’s desires and aspirations. What’s changed is that basic goals such as getting married, having a secure job and owning a home have drifted further out of reach.

Even as marriage rates have plummeted — particularly for the young and the less educated — Gallup survey data show that young singles very much hope to get hitched. Of Americans 18 to 34, only about 9 percent have both never been married and say they do not ever want to marry.

“Although there is now a growing class divide in who gets and stays married in America, there is virtually no divide in the aspiration to marry,” says W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. “It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, white, black or Hispanic. Most Americans are married or would like to marry. The challenge, then, facing the United States is bridging the gap between the nearly universal aspiration to marry and the growing inability of poor and working-class Americans to access marriage.”

On to housing. Young Americans are substantially less likely to own homes than their counterparts a generation or two ago, with their homeownership rates reaching record lows this year.

But survey after survey shows that young people would love to be deed-owners. Fannie Mae’s National Housing Survey, for example, asks respondents whether they think it’s better to own or rent to achieve various goals (such as feeling safe, building wealth, feeling engaged in their communities, etc.). On almost every question, young adults — just like their older brethren — say that owning is better. The vast majority of millennials also say they’ll buy at some point, if they haven’t already, and they believe that the best reasons for owning are not financial but the “broader security and lifestyle benefits of homeownership.”

So what’s keeping young people from buying, even as mortgage rates appear relatively cheap, and from marrying, even though possible mates are plentiful?

Economic opportunity has a lot to do with both. Unemployment rates for the youngest adults remain high, and they look far worse when you include people who aren’t actually looking for work but still say they want a job. Student loan debt also seems to be weighing on young people’s ability to buy, as documented by the economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, among others.

Perhaps preferences for these kinds of life milestones will eventually change, too, as norms evolve out of economic necessity. But in the meantime, don’t malign millennials for “rejecting” milestones that remain out of their reach.

Catherine Rampell is a Washington Post columnist. Her email address is crampell@washpost.com.

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