The generational gap has never seemed so wide. Millennials, many believe, are drastically shifting societal norms, pushing off major life events like marriage and starting a family to instead focus on careers, fun, and presumably memes. But, as a recent report from the Stanford Center on Longevity reveals, there’s almost no difference between when millennials want to hit milestones and when their parents did. The difference is that millennials are, for economic and social reasons that are out of their control, failing, leading to an enormous amount of frustration even among successful adults.
The Stanford Center on Longevity intended to interrogate the now common belief that millennials are somehow culturally removed from their forebears by asking about their goals and, more specifically, about the ideal timing for specific life events. To do so, they circulated a 200-question Milestones survey, which gathered thoughts about ideal age for reaching a certain milestone and the actual age when they reached said milestone. The milestones in question were starting a full-time job, starting to save for retirement, getting married, buying a home, and starting a family.
The survey received 1716 responses. Some 48 percent of the responders were women, 28 percent were non- white, and 52 percent were college educated. Results were broken up into six age brackets, beginning at 25-34 and ending at 77 and over.
After parsing the data, researchers found that, across the generations, ideal timing remained the same. “Younger, middle-aged, and older adults all reported wanting to start a full-time job, get married, buy a home, and start a family at very similar ages,” the report says. “Thus, people in their 20s and 30s have goals that are similar to their 60- and 70-year-old counterparts.”
There was, however, one generational exception to this: the ideal age at which responders wanted to start saving for retirement. Younger generations, it showed, are investing for retirement at much earlier ages, a trend that actually goes against the notion of the irresponsible millennial. (This could be — to squeeze the numbers a bit hard — a reaction to operating in a system that they don’t trust to facilitate optimal outcomes for their wellbeing.)
Of course, what is desired and what actually takes place are two entirely different things. Per the report, younger generations rarely meet their ideal outcomes. In fact, younger adults are the furthest away from meeting their ideal ages for getting married, buying a home, and starting a family.
“The oldest generation in our study had the highest percentage of individuals actually meeting their ideal age for getting married, buying a home, and starting a family,” the report reads. “For every subsequent age group, we found a linear decline in the percentage of people meeting their ideal for these three milestones.”
The biggest discrepancy in ideal versus actual outcomes was home ownership. While the survey couldn’t find a median of the rates of home ownership amongst 25-34-year-olds, 35-54-year-olds had a seven-year median gap between ideal and actual time of first-home purchase. For those 65 and over, there was only a one to two-year gap.
These generational discrepancies are the result of many, many factors including higher expectations of themselves and a more troubling housing market. Regardless, researchers say the trend shows that “younger age groups are increasingly less likely to experience milestones at the age they want, if at all.” Again, the exception here is retirement savings: Forty-three percent of younger people are actually doing meeting their ideal goals, more than any older age group.
This information could lead to an increasingly frustrated generation full of men and women who feel like they’re behind their goals. There’s a distinct correlation between failing to reach major milestones and poorer health and well-being. In fact, the report goes as far to say that by holding too close to societal norms may be a big factor in the rise of what sociologists call “deaths of despair.” In an interview with NPR, Anne Case, who, along with her husband Angus came up with the term to account for the rising death toll among middle-aged white Americans, said “these deaths of despair have been accompanied by reduced labor force participation, reduced marriage rates, increases in reports of poor health, and poor mental health.”
Maybe the old, depressing adage of “expect nothing and you’ll never be disappointed” should become the millennial mantra. Disappointment is rapidly becoming a widespread social issue.