The Milestones project was developed to better understand how life events are shifting across generations. Specifically, younger adults appear to be delaying when they experience major life milestones, such as marriage and home ownership, that have been staples of the American Dream. Many assume that younger people are choosing to put off these milestones for a multitude of reasons, including an unwillingness to grow up, settle down, or commit. The current study tests this assumption by investigating at what age people actually reach these milestones and at what age people ideally want to do so.
SHIFTING LIFE MILESTONES ACROSS AGES: A MATTER OF PREFERENCE OR CIRCUMSTANCE?
Millennials are depicted as choosing to delay traditional milestones, such as getting married and buying homes, which suggests that younger adults are intentionally changing the shape of the American life course.
The Stanford Center on Longevity sought to investigate how the timing of major life milestones (which include starting a full-time job, starting to save for retirement, getting married, buying homes, and starting a family) has shifted across generations.
Summary of Findings
Across generations, the ideal age trajectory for experiencing major life milestones has remained remarkably constant.
Compared to the previous generation, every age group has experienced a similar drop in % experiencing many life milestones at ideal age.
Younger people show the largest gaps between when they want to achieve life milestones and when they actually do, indicating they are farthest away from achieving their ideals.
Notably, younger generations are faring increasingly better than older generations when it comes to retirement planning.
While people’s ideals as defined by the American Dream appear to be unwavering, the extent to which Americans are able to achieve that dream has floundered. Ultimately, younger adults are steadfastly pursuing goals set by a generation nearly a century ago. Perhaps, holding onto an increasingly elusive dream is setting up younger generations to fail.
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“As a millennial who graduated college during the recession, I’ve been bombarded by unrealized expectations like those described by Milestones, but also by baby boomers who don’t understand what it’s like to be a millennial constantly complaining about us, often with truly hateful words. I really appreciate studies like this that show the strain between expectations and reality that my generation has experienced.”
Content Producer, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies
Stereotypes abound about the Millennial generation and its naïve attitude of entitlement. As the popular media narrative plays out, young people coddled by their parents and warped by digital technology, expect everything to come pre-packaged on a silver platter, right when they want it. Sure, research has confirmed some fragile and narcissistic tendencies among those born starting in the 80s, but to paint a whole generation with such broad strokes is missing the political and cultural subtext, not to mention the generational truths long neglected about what Americans really want and who can expect to get it.
“The average American is left pining after unachievable…false symbols.”
In my role at Fidelity, I’m often asked if Millennials are getting the message that they need to save for retirement, as most employers no longer offer Defined Benefit pension plans, and for the vast majority defined contribution plans are the only option. Ten years ago, my answer was “some are, but most are not.” However, new findings by the Stanford Center on Longevity in their new report “TheShifting Life Milestones across Ages: A Matter of Preference or Circumstance?” reveals that today’s Millennials are well aware of the need to start saving early, and Fidelity’s database of 16 million 401(k) participants supports this finding.
“This suggests that Millennials are not only getting the message that saving for retirement is critical, but they’re acting on it, too.”
A brief interview with Jeanne L. Tsai, Professor of Psychology
Conducted by Tamara Sims
Jeanne L. Tsai is a Stanford professor in the Department of Psychology, and the director of the Stanford Culture and Emotion Laboratory. Her work focuses on the implications of culture on emotion, and how it in turn affects life factors such as health and decision-making. In this interview, Jeanne Tsai explained her thoughts on the Milestone findings, and the impact they could have on the well-being of the generations it focuses on, particularly Millennials.
“The Milestones Project perfectly illustrates [that] younger adults are viewed as wanting to disrupt the traditional milestones…but there must be other reasons why younger adults are behaving this way.”
A number of years ago, Bill Sharpe (noted economist), Laura Carstensen (noted psychologist), and I (good listener and note-taker) were having a conversation about news headlines on emerging trends indicating that Millennials were delaying “everything.” The narrative was that this generation were “disruptors,” and wanted to do everything differently; they wanted more work/life balance, wanted more meaningful work, were creating a sharing economy, and having had a front-row seat to the financial meltdown, they saw the risks of owning a home and the struggle of supporting a family, and didn’t want either. Therefore, they were going to do it their own way.
“Are they that different from every other generation?”
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