What does the life of a contemporary twentysomething look like? You’re probably picturing a life of ease: a college-educated young person with a relatively low-paying job and student loans to pay off, but who has some financial support from his or her parents, a high degree of lifestyle independence, few commitments, and plenty of time to party or pursue fashionable hobbies. Perhaps he or she is living with a romantic partner, but they’re not rushing into marriage or planning to have kids anytime soon.
This is the image of emerging adulthood: the period between adolescence and completing the milestones that mark full adulthood (financial independence, marriage, and having children). During college and in following years, emerging adults explore their identities and ponder what life path to take in a world awash with opportunities. They switch jobs and change residences often. They plan to settle down at some point—just not yet. After all, they are told, “your twenties are for figuring out your passion. Your thirties are for living it.”
That portrait isn’t totally inaccurate, but it sure isn’t universal. It’s most accurate for young adults from financially well-off homes: thanks to their parents’ financial support, they can afford to spend four years in college and then dabble in different career paths in the knowledge that, should the job market go south, their parents can always afford to take them in.
Those who grew up in poverty take on adult responsibilities earlier in life than those from affluent homes.
Young people from less financially secure backgrounds, on the other hand, have to grow up more quickly. As Sarah Kendig, Marybeth Mattingly, and Suzanne Bianchi show in a new article in Family Relations, those who grew up in poverty take on adult responsibilities earlier in life than those from affluent homes. Compared to adolescents whose families were never poor or low-income during their first twelve years of life, adolescents whose families have spent time in poverty are more likely to help pay family bills, support their parents nearly every day, and worry almost daily about their financial future. They’re less likely to finish high school and attend college, and they become parents at earlier ages—and even though their financial situation is consequently less secure than that of their more affluent peers, they’re more likely to be financially independent and less likely to receive multiple financial transfers from their parents.
Although this study used data that covered young adults only up to age 24, one can easily imagine the long-term consequences of these different backgrounds. Thanks to their parents’ generous financial support, some young adults can complete college debt-free and thus enter their twenties with the benefits of a college degree but without the financial drag of college loans. Thus they can avoid using credit cards to cover their living expenses, and they have enough discretionary income to start saving for the future. Such young people may not find great jobs in today’s economy; nevertheless, they’re financially stable and at little risk of falling into poverty.
Lacking that financial support, young people from lower-income backgrounds might take out loans to enroll in college, but because they still have to work part-time to support themselves and their siblings, they may find it harder to finish their degree and drop out. Then they need to pay back their loans, but their lack of a college degree limits their job opportunities. Even if they delay starting a family of their own, they’re on the road to long-term financial instability.
As Kendig, Mattingly, and Bianchi conclude, their findings imply that young adults from lower-income families need more support as they pursue a college education or job training, and they could benefit from earlier training in financial literacy as they contribute to their families’ income at younger ages. Especially as older adults are struggling to save for retirement in the wake of the recession, we can’t assume that all young people can rely on their parents indefinitely.