Several years ago, before the Great Recession, I had the simple insight that people will generally follow the social script for their culture, if they can afford to. By afford I mean not just sufficient finances , but also the social capital and safety needed to act. Now I know my hunch was right.
My generation, which came of age at the turn of the millennium, has been roundly criticized for our delays in following the social script. We’re putting off marriage and children and living with our parents in record numbers, throwing the social order off track. We aren’t buying homes and cars at the rates our parents did.
We know the social script. We were raised in families with different cultural values and influences, but we all absorbed the central messages of how those values should play out. We were supposed to go to college, land secure jobs, and work our way up the ladder. We were supposed to get married (heterosexually), have children, and make large consumer purchases.
My generation is plagued by feelings of guilt and incompetence for the ways in which we’ve failed to follow the script. The Boomer dominated print media industry exacerbates and exploits these feelings in an endless stream of Millennial bashing articles. They call us entitled for being unable to afford rent, and call us lazy for not buying the cereal they are selling.
Very little attention is paid to the inability of Millennials to afford the script. The ways in which the play has changed is ignored , and the actors are blamed for not following impossible stage direction. Changes to the real estate market, skyrocketing tuition rates, childcare costs higher than earnings, and increased cost of basic goods from gasoline to groceries are all making the script unaffordable. No one feels worse about this than Millennials, yet no one is more responsible than Baby Boomers.
It’s frankly already too late to put my generation on the same path as our parents. We’re spread across our late twenties and early thirties, already behind. If we all got the money we so desperately need tomorrow, we’d still be late to buy homes, graduate from college, pay off our student loans, and start saving for retirement. There have always been individuals unable to follow the script – due to discrimination or disability or difference. Each generation’s plan has left members behind. But right now the majority are being left behind. That means the script is changing.
Millennial parents won’t be like Boomer parents; their own young adulthood has been too different. We won’t tell our children college is always the best use of money or will guarantee them a steady career. It hasn’t been true for us, a highly educated and underemployed generation. We may not expect our children to leave the nest at 18 and never return. We know sometimes a nest to return to is the difference between a setback and a ruined life.
The script we give the next generation will be different. It will be shaped by what’s affordable now, to us, and it will incorporate our shared values. Unmarried cohabitation between parents is higher now than ever recorded, and living with someone before marrying them has become more common than not. The script we write probably won’t put marriage early in the play. And diamonds won’t be a mandatory part of matrimony.
I think it’s important that we recognize we are writing a script, we are deciding a new path to adulthood as we agonize over what adulting even means. We are collectively deciding what milestones will mark adulthood for the next generation, and what will make today’s children someday feel like failures. I hope we can be kind to them. I hope we remember these struggles and this feeling of hopeless unfairness as we raise our kids and as they exit their teen years. I hope we remember that young adulthood can be scary and that a safe loving family makes all the difference.
I hope we are better middle aged adults than the current script would have us be.