Much has been written about the Millennium generation—American teens and twenty somethings. They are often described as confident, upbeat, social, and open-minded – and I have found this to be true among the Millennium members I know personally and professionally. Yet these profiles mask the full story. With the economic downturn, rising cost of college, fewer and more elusive job prospects than in past generations, and the protracted dependence on parents and family, many among the Millennial generation are facing a new and more challenging road to adulthood.
As many of us know, the transition from high school through the mid to late twenties is often a precarious one – especially for young men . As they enter adulthood, many young adults appear aimless or adrift – confused about their immediate future. They are uncertain what they want to do, or – if they have an idea—how to go about it. For young adults who complete high school (22% do not), many reflexively enroll in and out of college, community college, or job training programs because this is what they are ‘supposed to do.’ But according to the Harvard Pathways to Prosperity study, just 56 percent of students complete four-year degrees within six years; a mere 29 percent of two-year college students earn associates degrees or certificates within three years. Many students accumulate debt, some credits, no credentials, and thus, enjoy few job prospects. They might want things like cars, smart phones, apartments, and trips for spring break, but they can’t afford these, or they overly depend on their families and friends for support. They often have fragmented visions of what adulthood is, and take even more fragmented routes to get there.
“According to the Harvard Pathways to Prosperity study, just 56 percent of students complete four-year degrees within six years; a mere 29 percent of two-year college students earn associates degrees or certificates within three years.”
Thus, while it is dangerous to generalize experiences and circumstances for all Millennial members, it safe to say that many young adults lack a clear purpose or sense of self-sufficiency, and are disconnected from education and professional pathways. And disconnectedness –or the feeling of not belonging –is, in turn, fertile ground for apathy, poor health/depression, and in some cases, aggression .
For this reason, efforts to engage young adults – those right out of high school and through their mid/late twenties— to help them find purpose and pathways are so critical. Programs that offer this, like City Year and Year Up come to mind. We should encourage and fund more alternatives like these that offer a transition year or service year for a wide range of young adults, and more importantly, a purpose and connection to community. High school guidance counselors might also extend their scope to support students well past graduation. Colleges, universities, and job training programs should strengthen counseling, career advising, and mentoring roles to support all students, and perhaps, more so, the part-time students, transfer student, and other students who cycle in and out of these settings. It cannot be assumed that these students can or will ‘figure it out’ on their own, or make healthy decisions.
Perhaps most counter-intuitive to what we think adulthood means is that parenting – or family engagement – should continue well into the twenties. This is not the same type of parenting/ family engagement we would expect during adolescence. Parents and family members must reshape their relationships with young adults as peers, mentors and trusted confidants. They must find ways to stay positively and appropriately engaged with their sons and daughters/nieces and nephews/young cousins, while allowing for and encouraging independence, failure and bad decisions, as well as accomplishments. This engagement need not be complex or cumbersome. For instance, an uncle might meet with his nephew for lunch or coffee every week to see what he’s ‘up to,’ listen, discuss sports and movies, and offer advice on jobs or relationships. The key is to establish enduring, supportive rituals of engagement with young adults.
While recognition of and actions to counter this vulnerable transition phase will not prevent all aimlessness, misguided acts or aggression among young adults, they may change the milieu for many, and reduce feelings of apathy and angst that can accompany this time in life. These above ideas are also simple, caring practices that just make sense, and will have benefits for all young adults, no matter their circumstances. We should no longer expect young adults – especially young men – to just ‘figure it out’ once they walk out of high school and begin the road to adulthood.
Jake Murray is the Senior Director of the Wheelock College Aspire Institute , Wheelock’s social and education innovation center.