Changing touchstones: Millennials navigating relationships

teamwork-382677_1920by Karla Erickson

How do we make sense of our lives and choices when we are told we are living amidst decline? As one way of thinking about the consequences on self-making in the post-recession economy, I have embarked on a new study of young workers called Millennials Navigating Lean Times, which uses interviews and observations of students from the millennial generation as they transition from college and make sense of opportunity, failure, luck and choice in the post-recession economy.

By interviewing graduates between 2000 and 2015, I capture their surprise, frustration, and how they make sense of opportunity and failure as they encounter a dramatically different world than the one encountered by their parents. Since 2013, along with two undergraduate research teams, I have interviewed 30 recent graduates of liberal arts schools asking questions about turning points in their careers, decision points, achievements, failures, and what they have learned about themselves from their working lives. The terrain on which they attempt to build adult lives feels new, uncertain.

Betting on friendship

These accounts of millennials highlight the significance of peers. Often for these recent graduates in their 20s and 30s, their “we” was still their closest friends, mainly developed in their undergraduate years.

One participant had made three friend-based, cross-country moves. While this was on the high end of friend-based job changes, participants consistently used that “we” of friend circles to describe how they evaluated their success, how they made sense of their opportunities, and, finally, how they marked high and low moments.

A participant named Jenny, when asked about turning points, described the day she accepted a new job after looking for work for a very long time.

I thought, I’m going to be terrible at that, but I need a job. I went in for an interview and they hired me that day. I remember it so clearly because a friend of mine just had a baby and I could buy samosas. I felt confident that I could spend my last whatever amount of money – I had $100 left in my bank account. I could spend the $12 on samosas and take them to her.

Using friends rather than parents as their primary reference point also allowed them to level their aspirations in terms of pay and prestige, but to maintain certain standards of quality of life and support each other in doing so. Rather than comparing themselves to pre-recession groups, young workers make sense of their fates through comparison to peers.

Not Enough Money for Lovin’

According to a Pew study called “Young, Unemployed, and Optimistic: Coming of Age Slowly, in a Tough Economy,” as of 2010, the employment gap between young workers and all workers is 15 percentage points, the widest in recorded history. We often hear that it will be hard for this generation to reach the milestones their parents did as if it is a future situation, but we focus less on the material consequences of those predictions – for example, marital patterns and childrearing decisions are not merely “cultural” as some would have us believe, but also economic. The Pew study found that for young adults who entered the job market in the early aughts, 31% said they had delayed marriage or child-rearing due to financial instability.

While my co-researchers and I were not asking about relationships, our prompts about feeling accomplished, about the future, about disappointments often led back to an uneasy uncertainty about marriage and child-rearing. We were surprised how direct our interviewees were about their sense that one of the differences between themselves and other generations was the financial certainty they perceived as important to embarking on either marriage of childbearing.

The connection between declining opportunity structures and entry into formal partnerships and parenting is understudied. Both have been observed, but the linkages between the two phenomena are not always considered.

A key finding from our research is the direct impact of uncertainty on loving. Together, the interviewees invite a consideration of the long-term societal effects of having young people who delay the formation of traditional families not because they are opposed, but because they do not have the middle class “toolbox” they have been lead to believe is necessary to do so.

Planning to tie themselves to someone else in a semi-permanent way via marriage or having children came up in their ambivalence about the more distant future. It was not uncommon for participants to say that they would be interested in having kids but really didn’t know if they would ever be stable enough to undertake that. Or, they would admit to seeing anything further than 3-5 years out as truly unknown.

In my estimation, this is the arena in which living in uncertain times seemed to influence them the most. It’s important to note that clearly marriage and childrearing are not the only ways to form families, and many of the people I was interviewing were living in intimate configurations of friends, partners, and neighbors, but the fact that they didn’t feel in control of that option I found noteworthy. One interviewee said, “I always planned to have kids, but I’m already 36 and I don’t have what I would need yet.”

Their view is primarily short term; as soon as they veer into longer-term plans, visions shut down and answers turn to unknowns. While this is an understandable response for a generation that has been advised – warned – to be flexible in all ways, it has material consequences for retirement and for the ability to take audacious future-oriented steps like having or adopting children.

If young adults don’t want to marry or raise kids, that’s fine, but if they want to and view the economic conditions of their era as too uncertain to do so, I worry a lot more about the depth of the accommodations these young workers are making to the conditions of late capitalism. They will not have another life to try on these ways of being and given that this rather privileged group sees family formation as not an entitlement, but a less likely opportunity, was both surprising and a little alarming.

These young adults situate ambivalence about family structures within a deeply felt sense of fragility – both financial and related to employment. And while they often see themselves as somehow failing to build families, I see them as building new intimate formations, more flexible than in previous times but no less real. Their choices can be seen as promising indications of how intimacy takes root in new forms during lean times.

I will close with Ashley who said this, “That next move was like the previous one – for no purpose other than some friends were living there and I felt like I had run my course there [so I went to where my friends were].” These young people are building worlds that defy more cynical views of the scarcity of love, of potential, of futures worth living in. But they often wonder if what they are doing is right.

Karla A. Erickson is Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean at Grinnell College.

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