The recent Pew Research Center report “Millennials in Adulthood” summed up a recent survey of my generation with this:
“The Millennial generation is forging a distinctive path into adulthood. Now ranging in age from 18 to 331, they are relatively unattached to organized politics and religion, linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry— and optimistic about the future.”
As it happens, many of my personal friends are also of the Millennial generation, but we, while linked by social media and burdened by debt, are very attached to politics, religion, and are happily married with children coming every couple of years. We are showing that there is more to our generation than a young adulthood of self exploration and leisure after adolescence. Emerging into adulthood can be paired with taking on responsibilities, and even though we do not feel like adults we are preserving traditional values for society that many of our peers are leaving by the wayside. I think that my story is not so very different from other religious Millennials, even if we are now living what some consider to be an “alternative lifestyle.”
I married my husband ten days before my twenty-second birthday and three months after his. We both had a BA and MA to our names, and only I had student debt for us to pay off. We knew many couples from our small Catholic college that were in a similar situation. Many of the couples were hoping to have children, while one of the spouses went to graduate school for further education. Other friends of ours did things like go to graduate school, start a job, enter religious life, or go to seminary. These all seemed like choices that would make us feel like adults.
When our first daughter was born before our first anniversary, I was posting pictures of my baby on Facebook, while the majority of my friends were posting pictures of themselves going out with friends. While I spent Friday and Saturday nights at home with my husband, most of my peers were trying to figure out where they were going to the movies or out to dinner.
It was a very strange experience, to be one of the few of my high school and college acquaintance to be married and having children. We found friends in our new city who also were having their first children, but we were the youngest by two years. I wonder now, if we are so very different from our peers who waited five more years for marriage and children.
In the current discussion of “emerging adulthood,” a theory which is being applied to those of the millennial generation, financial independence, marriage, and having children are marks of full adulthood. But when I look at the description of what “emerging adults” experience, I have had the exact same feelings that unmarried peers also had. It is really only since we bought a house last year, that I sometimes really feel like an adult. There must be more to being an adult than marriage, money, and children.
Here are the five features of “emerging adulthood” from the 2006 review of the book by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, PhD, “Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Though the Twenties” (Oxford University Press, 2004) :
Age of identity exploration. Young people are deciding who they are and what they want out of work, school and love.
Age of instability. The post-high school years are marked by repeated residence changes, as young people either go to college or live with friends or a romantic partner. For most, frequent moves end as families and careers are established in the 30s.
Age of self-focus. Freed of the parent- and society-directed routine of school, young people try to decide what they want to do, where they want to go and who they want to be with–before those choices get limited by the constraints of marriage, children and a career.
Age of feeling in between. Many emerging adults say they are taking responsibility for themselves, but still do not completely feel like an adult.
Age of possibilities. Optimism reigns. Most emerging adults believe they have good chances of living “better than their parents did,” and even if their parents divorced, they believe they’ll find a lifelong soul mate.
The thing is, all of these features have been a part of my experience since I was married at 21. Obviously, during our four years in college these things were normal, but after our wedding we were still learning to be adults.
Going through the five features of “emerging adulthood,” I will begin with “age of identity exploration.” One of the great things about marrying young is that a couple can mature in adulthood together. Having met my husband when I was 18, on the cusp of so-called “emerging adulthood,” we have spent our whole adult life as friends. We spent as much time together as was reasonable, studying, praying, and hanging out. Our vocational discernment was largely influenced by our friendship, and we had a beautifully supportive community of friends. On the practical side, we cooked many dinners together at each other’s off-campus homes and worked the same student worker job. We spent a lot of time getting to know each other as very young adults, and we were able to do this in a safe community of the “bubble” of our conservative Catholic college campus.
Then we graduated, left the safety of our small community, got married, and moved to a brand new city with two minivans full of stuff to our name and only each other for local friends. Then we felt young in the wide world, but still hopeful as members of our generation. We helped each other in figuring out what we wanted out of life, but were also largely guided by our faith. I think, because of our Catholic identity, we did not feel the need to explore what we wanted in life after marriage. We were living the life we had chosen together, but still did not feel like adults.
The “Age of Instability” fits my experience well. Most of my life since high school has been characterized by the instability of moving from place to place. Since I was 18, I have lived in ten different homes, in dorms, houses, and apartments. Now that we have bought a house, I expect that we will have more home stability. I have lived in five different cities (including a semester abroad), but now that my husband has a tenure track position, I doubt that we will move again. It took a graduate degree and full time employment for us to find stability and to settle into a community. But unlike, our unmarried, nonreligious peers, we had the stability of each other, our extended families, and the community of the universal Church.
I definitely experienced the “Age of Self Focus.” Having my first child when my peers were not was very difficult for me. I found myself resenting my loss of freedom, and I was still very much self-focused as I took care of my child. Looking back, I see that a lot of my problem was getting used to taking care of an entirely dependent human being that required so much. For the first time in my life, my wants were not my priority. I struggled to take care of myself and another, but I still did not feel like an adult. I had already been restrained by marriage and children, but I still had a lot of selfishness to overcome. I think that self focus is something that is continually overcome, unless one is truly a saint.
Then there is the “Age of feeling in between,” which seems to me an unsurprising feature of maturing in adulthood. The youngest adults do not feel equal to the oldest adults in the workforce. I worked a part-time job my first two years of marriage, bringing my baby to work with me, but my co-workers all had children my age. They advised me on parenting, and had much more experience in our work. I was young and inexperienced in their eyes. My husband as a graduate student, under the tutelage of his professors and teaching classes of undergraduates, was very much in between. It seems that whether one is married or not, there is an adjustment time to the workforce.
Further, whenever we encountered a crisis situation, we were always calling our parents. Our car broke down, so we called for a tow, brought it to a shop, and then called our parents for advice about the repairs. We were facing many normal life experiences for the first time as adults, and felt like children doing so.
We were not immune to the “age of possibilities” either. We spent all of our last year in college hopeful about graduate schools and our marriage. When my husband was earning his PhD, we were hopeful about job prospects, though also realistic about the awful job market for prospective philosophy professors. When he did get his job, we were hopeful about our future. Even now, that we are finally “settled” with our family of five, in our house in the first ring suburb, we are hopeful about what our future will bring.
Millennials who have decided to settle down early in their twenties are still experiencing a lot of the same things that our unmarried peers are experiencing. In some ways it is more serious that jobs are hard to come by and student debt seems to have no end in sight. Many of the young Millennial families are living on one income or one and a half. For our children thrifty budgeting, home made foods, secondhand or clearance clothing, frequent Church attendance, siblings, and sharing rooms are just a part of life.
And as Catholics we have our faith. In our brave new world of social networking, we have online places of community. Thanks to our weekly obligation, we also have our local Catholic communities. Everywhere I have lived, a Catholic community has been my foundation. In my youth I had my family and parish. In college I had the whole campus and my closest friends. In graduate school, my husband and I quickly met as many young, Catholic couples as we could.
And now, we have found a great Catholic community in our new home. It is the real life Catholic community that has helped us preserve our values as a part of the generation who connects largely over the Internet, and the Internet has helped us to connect with Catholics across the globe. It is incredible, how a single prayer request on a person’s Facebook timeline can lead to hundreds and thousands of people praying. Millennials who have faith are certainly in the minority, and it will not be easy to preserve our values in society, but we will hold tight to our traditions and live.