The New On-Ramp: Emerging Adulthood and the Workplace

If we’re older longer, we’re also younger longer.

Over the past few years, I’ve asked hundreds of people with adult children how their lives compare to their children’s lives at the same age.

Sharon, 63, recently told me:

“When I was 28, my husband and I lived in a suburban home with two kids. We were balancing work, carpools and family obligations. It’s been an amazing life, but I can’t help but be a bit jealous of my kids today. My 28-year-old son is a freelance developer living in Japan. I miss him and I want him to come home, but he’s really having the experience of a lifetime. It’s amazing to me how much he has done and seen in a short amount of time.”

While Sharon’s son may not be an entirely typical Millennial, her sentiment is very common. I’ve heard from parents again and again that their adult children are living great lives but haven’t achieved the traditional milestones associated with adulthood. My own parents were married and had a child by the time they were 25. Most 25-year-olds I know are… drunk. No, I’m kidding. They’re hungover.

The new onramp to adulthood is known as “emerging adulthood,” and it’s longer and more unpredictable than it’s ever been. The time between ages 18 and 29 is now marked by self-exploration, self-focus, instability in work and love, transition and optimism.

You can hear the shift in the cultural conversation in the way people in their 20s use “adulting.” They don’t call themselves adults, but use the neologism as a verb and a hashtag to describe the way they’re trying on adult life. For example:

Jan 8
Cooking for the first time in a while and of course I forget to put oil on the pan before putting the meat in. #fml #halp #adulting

Jan 8
Things I just googled: “How to do your taxes.” #adulting

Sociologists define adulthood as five distinct (and perhaps outdated) events: leaving home, finishing education, entering full-time work, getting married and having kids. Let’s see how millennials measure up:

• In 1960, 40 percent of 30-year-olds were homeowners. Today, 27 percent of 30-year-olds are homeowners.
• In the 1960s, the average person had four different employers by the time they were 65. Today, the average person has eight by the time they’re 30.
• For the first time since 1880, Americans ages 18 to 34 are more likely to live with their parents than in a household shared with a spouse or partner.
• In 1960, 59 percent of adults under 30 were married. Today, 20 percent of adults under 30 are married.

Many factors can explain these generational differences, including the most recent recession, rising student loan debt, and shifting norms around cohabitation and premarital sex. But we can’t ignore another important one: longevity.

We’re living longer than ever before. Fifty percent of babies born in 2007 will live to be 104. While discussions around longevity typically focus on what it means to be older longer, there’s a flip side: If we’re older longer, we’re also younger longer. If 60 is the new 40, it should come as no surprise that 30 is the new 20.

What are the implications of the emergence of a new life stage? We can look to the rise of teenagers as a barometer. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, founder and executive director of the Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood, writes,

“It took a long time for the sociology and psychology fields to adequately explain to the broader population that teenage years was a specific development stage. Once the case was made, social institutions adapted.”

The idea that teenagers were somehow different led to changes in health care, education (the creation of junior highs, for example) and criminal justice. We can expect emerging adults to have a similar, if not greater, impact on our society. In fact, we’re already seeing changes in finance and marketing, as young adults delay big purchases like homes and cars; in education as more emerging adults opt for gap years or go back to school when they’re older; and in marriage and parenting as more people have more life experience behind them when they become partners and parents.

And, of course, this shift will change the way we work. Emerging adults have very little to lose. Many of them don’t have mortgages to pay or families to support. Their sense of possibility and optimism fosters their “grass is always greener” mindset. If you’re thinking “retention issues” right now, you’re right on target.

Here’s what your organization can do:

Tap into self-exploration. Create travel opportunities, particularly abroad. This benefits not only your adventurous employees, but your organization, which will have a network of people with cross-cultural relationships.

Create growth and development outside of typical job functions. Emerging adults are curious and motivated to learn. Smart companies are leveraging this with unconventional learning opportunities. Google, AETNA and UnitedHealth Group offer mindfulness training, a great life skill with the added benefit of more focused employees. Company book clubs, often focused on leadership and strategy, have become popular as well.

Create strong alumni networks. Job-hopping throughout your 20s has become the norm and will likely stay that way. But when people reach 30, they tend to find more stability in their jobs — and they now have more professional pull and valuable connections. Rather than cutting off ties with people who leave, organizations should create and nurture alumni networks.

Some of the best and brightest will leave an organization to travel or try other options, but when they are ready for a long-term career, they are more likely to return to the company that held that door slightly open for them. We call these “boomerang” employees, and they typically have high retention and engagement rates.

This new, extended on-ramp can be baffling for parents like Sharon and for the bosses who now employ their adult children, but it also represents an enormous opportunity for organizations and the corporate world as a whole. Reshaping work life around optimistic, adventurous, ambitious emerging adults can benefit us all.