A Day of Reckoning for Gen-Yers

Since leaving college Felicite has changed jobs more than once a year. The 26-year-old Parisian--who didn't want her full name used in case it was seen by her current employers--tends to switch for "excitement" rather than money. Indeed, whenever her latest job doesn't pay enough for her to rent an apartment, she simply moves back into her parents' home in the suburbs. Her latest plan: to quit her position in advertising for humanitarian work overseas. "I'm still young!" she says. "I just want to have fun in my job."

Felicite is emblematic of a growing trend. Around the developed world, more and more twentysomethings are staying home with their moms and dads so they can pursue their interests instead of worrying about secure jobs that will pay off mortgages. (In France, for example, some 65 percent of people in their mid-20s are still living with their parents--double the proportion that stayed in the nest in 1975. The upside, for the children at least, is obvious: more young people feeling free to do work--both paid and volunteer--that they love. But now social commentators are starting to wonder how long tomorrow's leaders can keep living in a Peter Pan Never-Never Land. The oldest Gen Y-ers turn 30 next year, and large swathes still haven't gotten stable careers, had kids or moved out of their childhood bedrooms. The question is: Will they be able to cope when they finally do? Sociologist Jean Twenge, author of last year's tome on the selfishness of today's twentysomethings, "Generation Me," predicts, "Sometime soon there is going to be a day of reckoning."

So far Gen Y has been able to postpone that day by relying heavily on Mom and Dad. In May, Britain's HSBC banking group released a global study on the future of retirement, which found that in nearly all of the 21 countries they studied, senior citizens--those who in times past would have been cared for by their grown children--gave more money to their offspring than they received. In total, almost a quarter of baby boomers had provided financial support to grown children at least once in the previous six months. Regional studies yield more specific data: in America 28 percent of 22-to-29-year-olds rely on money from their parents to fund "major expenses." In Britain half of people under 30 get help from their parents for first-home deposits--up from just 10 percent a decade ago. "Lots of baby boomers are deciding not to retire and using their money to lift their kids out of falling into the lower brackets of society," says Richard Jones, deputy head of HSBC's retirement businesses.

Because of this safety net, it's not surprising that Gen-Yers have much more relaxed priorities than their money-motivated Gen X and baby boomer predecessors. In a study released this summer, global employment agency Manpower found that across the developed world, under-30s would overwhelmingly rather "pursue their passions" than "make lots of money," with 73 percent of young Spaniards and two-thirds of Americans and Canadians backing that statement. Likewise, a recent Europe-wide survey from Stockholm-based Universum found that work-life balance is now the single most popular career goal among university graduates, ahead of high pay. Says Tammy Johns, Manpower's head of workforce strategy, "Gen-Yers around the world are absolutely willing to quit any job that doesn't offer everything they want."

But how much longer is Gen Y going to be able to keep relying on their aging parents to make this possible? The answer seems to be: not as long as they think. A British report from Fidelity International recently found that while more than half of adults under 35 are relying on a big inheritance from Mom and Dad to fund their futures instead of putting away pension savings of their own, two-thirds of baby boomers say they plan to enjoy their lives by spending their savings and cashing in the equity in their homes. In short, they say, they are not worried about leaving a legacy.

"Generation Me" author Twenge says that, anecdotally, her research suggests that the day of reckoning for many young adults may be coming even sooner. Some parents, she says, are drawing the line at 30; others are deciding to kick their kids out when they try to let a boyfriend or girlfriend move into the family home.

Such evictions aren't easy for Gen-Yers to take. They've been raised, says Twenge, on "bad advice," like "believe in yourself and you can do anything," leaving many with deeply unrealistic expectations about their lives. Indeed, in a massive new research project on the ever-growing narcissism of today's young adults set to be published early next year, Twenge has found that the gap between expectation and reality is immense for Generation Y. One example: in 1975, 24 percent of American high-school students believed that they would earn a graduate degree; today 50 percent of high-school students think the same thing. In reality just 9 percent of students both then and now actually go on to accomplish this goal. Twenge thinks that such overblown expectations are largely to blame for the well-documented rise in anxiety and depression in young adults. "It's depressing to realize that your unrealistic dreams are never going to come true," says Twenge.

At the same time, employment experts are concerned about Gen Y's ability to make the transition into the standard workforce, because of their adolescent attitudes. Mitchell Marks, an organizational psychologist at San Francisco State University, says he thinks that young people's reliance on their parents has resulted in a generation that isn't capable of making adult decisions. Last year, for example, Marks was consulting on the takeover of a major American corporation; the new owners gave the employees a choice of six different health care plans. While Marks watched the older members of the workforce worry about whether they'd keep their jobs, the twentysomethings were obsessing about which health-care plan to choose. "These kids have always had everything laid out for them by their parents," he says. "The anxiety of having to make a decision made them go crazy."

But not everyone is worried. Prominent American sociologist William Galston, of the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution, who this month released a major nationwide study examining "the changing 20s," predicts that when the Gen-Yers do eventually settle down, they might actually "turn out to be more capable" adults than their predecessors were. "In generations past, some young adults resented parenthood and marriage because they felt it cut off a period of self-exploration that hadn't run its course," argues Galston. "But today's young people are going to be able to look back and say, 'I've screwed around for 10 years. I've gotten that out of my system.' So there's not going to be an undertone of resentment or regret."

Still, when everything's said and done, today's twentysomethings aren't all that different from their parents. They're just doing things a little bit later. Instead of getting married at 23 (the 1970 average), American men are getting married at 27; and instead of 80 percent of American women leaving home by 24, now they're getting out by 29. "Thirty is the new 20," says Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, editor of last year's "Emerging Adults in America." "The transition to adulthood is longer than it used to be, but it's still a temporary stage." So will Gen Y be able to deal with the realities of kids-and-a-mortgage adulthood? The answer is that they probably won't do any better--or worse--than their parents did.