The Millennials' Journey Into Adulthood

A New York Times article, “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” written last summer has stayed with me as I continue to talk with clients about the Millennials and how they approach work life. This article talks about the new growing-up phase of today’s Millennials as a distinct life stage called “emerging adulthood” and relates it to “adolescence,” which was a new term 100 years ago when 12- to 18-year-olds began staying in school instead of starting to work at 12 or 13. Many young people in their early 20s are not following the path of past generations — graduate high school, go on to college, graduate, find a job, marry, start a family, and eventually retire. Rather, 40% of today’s Millennials move back home at least once, have many jobs as well as romantic relationships in their 20s, travel, do what appears like nothing, and go back to school. They are exploring and feel no need to rush to make work or personal commitments. They are the product of their Baby Boomer parents who, although they worry about their children making it on their own, provide support and encourage them to find what’s right for them. Millennials as children were encouraged to explore as they participated in a variety of sports, drama, music, and other enriching children-focused activities during and after school. It’s not surprising that they now want to explore many career and life options and don’t feel any obligation to follow the traditional approaches to adulthood. We also see government regulations allowing parents to keep their children on their health insurance until they are 26.

Young people’s brain development is another topic in the article. Sophisticated scanning technology shows that gray brain matter seems structurally mature by about age 25, but the white brain matter, which allows impulses to travel faster, are still forming beyond age 25. This information about brain development beyond childhood is not new. However, with the “emerging adulthood” stage, societal maturation may fall in sync with brain maturation. This should allow Millennials to make better life decisions with a mature brain and many work/life experiences as a foundation.

Rather than bemoaning the delayed launch into adulthood, I think we should applaud it. I’m watching this process first hand. I’m a parent of Millennials and have many friends who are also Millennial parents. These young people are bright with exploring minds and keen interests in knowing what the world has to offer. They take on part-time or low-paying work for incidentals, knowing that they can rely on their parents for other financial needs. Last night, I was at the 30th birthday party for a friend’s daughter. After eight years of exploring the work world with five very different jobs (including a stint in Europe) and moving in and out of personal relationships, she said, “Claire, I am finally there. I know what I want to do! I can combine my people counseling with my love for animals.” She is an SPCA counselor for people interested in being foster parents to animals. Her management skills are shining through, and her psychology major in college is being put to use as she develops an adult/dog behavioral-focused training program.  So many others, including my own son, in their mid 20s are still exploring. I think back to my Baby Boomer generation and how the path was pretty clear: get your college degree, find a good job, get married but keep your professional career, and juggle child care. I actually have a Millennial daughter who has followed this path.

These ideas on Millennials speak strongly to the business world. Some young college grads will join your organization and find that the fit is right, but for the majority, your organization will be one of the stops in the Millennial’s journey through a dozen or so jobs before finding the one where they make a commitment. If businesses understand this and engage the Millennial while they have them by tapping into their specific expertise, whether in technology, or creative approaches to a process, or whatever, they will benefit — even if only for a short time. I see research assistants come into Forrester and stay, on average, 18 months. I’ve learned something from every one of them. They have had design skills, analytical skills, process skills, and, of course, technology skills that contribute to my work and to Forrester as an organization. Don’t try to mold these young people to fit your organization. That will drive them away. Accept them and get the most from them in a constructive environment. Our society is evolving. As with most change, we look back, often longingly, at the way it used to be. Stop! Give these young people a chance to explore and grow within your organization and reap the short-term benefits.

In summary, I firmly believe that today’s Millennials will be very effective adults. They will use their 20s to explore, just hang around, travel, communicate on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Just as the “play” process is very important for young children’s development, I believe Millennials are in the “play” process within the much broader adult world. In the end, this “messing around” phase will prove beneficial. The majority will find where they want to be and focus their energies. But they won’t be workaholics like their Baby Boomer parents. They will demand a balance between having fun and working. Money and tangibles are important, but not as important as having life/work balance. When these Millennials commit themselves to a task, they do great things. They are our future.