Do You Really Know 20-somethings?

group of 20-somethingsFew of us remember our teen years fondly. It’s a time of pimples, raging hormones, fights with parents, and urges to belong.  All those feelings of insecurity coupled with a sense of invincibility has a clinical diagnosis called adolescence.

The 2006 UN report indicates that almost half of the global population is under the age of 24 – fully 85% of the world’s working-age youth is under the age of 24.  Interestingly, 85% of the world’s working-age youth, those between the ages of 15 and 24, live in the developing world.

The term “adolescence” – and its definition – actually only came in existence in 1904 with the publication of “Adolescence,” by G. Stanley Hall, the first president of the American Psychological Association.  Once that new developmental stage was recognized and accepted, massive changes in social institutions, such as education, health care, social services and the law were changed to recognize that these 12 to 18 year olds needed more time to grow up.  Who would’ve thought we would be saying the same thing about 20-somethings a century later?

Well, get ready for a new developmental stage.  A psychology professor at Clark University, in Worcester, Mass., is making a case to view the 20s as a distinct life stage, which he calls “emerging adulthood.”  In an article in The New York Times, Robin Marantz Henig spoke with Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, who explains how the psychological profile of the 20-somethings is changing.  It is no longer about growing up and starting a career and family after finishing school.  The 20s often avoid commitments or permanent homes, remain un-tethered to romantic partners, compete (and complain) about temporary jobs, and end up delaying adulthood.

Arnett characterizes this group as: the start of identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between, and having a sense of possibilities.  Where previous generations followed a basic pattern of adulthood by accomplishing five milestones – completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having a child – by age 30, today’s “emerging adults” don’t seem to have the same goals…or at least the same timetable.

According to Henig’s article, in 1960, 77% of women and 65% of men had – by the time they reached 30 – accomplished all five milestones.  A check of 30-year-olds in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, found that fewer than half the women and one-third of the men had hit all five milestones.  But why the changing timetable for adulthood?  Is it a byproduct of cultural, social and economic forces?  Or, a neurological hard-wiring?  Is it really self-discovery, or self-indulgence?

Arnett describes this phase as optimistic, but ambivalent … self-focused, but uncertain.  Some scientists believe this ambivalence has to do with brain development maturing well into the 20s – with the most significant changes taking place in the prefrontal cortex and cerebellum, the regions involved in emotional control, higher order cognitive functions and impulse control.

Cultural changes helping fuel this shift are: more education to survive in an information-based economy; fewer entry-level jobs even after school; feelings of being less in a rush to marry due to the acceptance of premarital sex, cohabitation and birth control, and young women believing they can have a career and delay pregnancy into their 30s and possibly 40s.

While not everyone is acknowledging Arnett’s new psychological profile, there are some arresting new statistics.  One-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year.  They are also restless in their jobs … they go through an average of seven jobs in their 20s. Forty percent move back home with their parents at least once.  Two-thirds spend at least some time living with a romantic partner without being married.  And marriage occurs later than ever.  The median age at first marriage in the early 1970s, when the baby boomers were young, was 21 for women and 23 for men; by 2009 it was 26 for women and 28 for men…five years in a little more than a generation.

So does all this mean that 20-somethings are “slackers”?  Or, is Arnett on to something? Parents who have a grown adult still living in their home ask themselves that question frequently. Is it better to experiment and test out so many of life’s choices or is it better to commit to a path and follow it?  What is that healthy balance of permission and protection?

Let’s face it.  Many parents may encourage their children to crawl toward full self-sufficiency and are not in a hurry for their kids to leave the nest.  Many parents are of the Baby Boomer generation where they helped break or postpone many of the milestones, such as postponing marriage in order to cohabit.  Many parents believe it is better for emerging adults to take their time with this ‘uncertain’ phase, rather than have a mid-life crisis where the 40-55 year old ditches the spouse, quits a job, buys a bike, starts jumping out of an airplane, or starts a band.  Parents want to help their kids do it right, and if they have the means, they will help financially and stay actively involved.  But we know this is not universal.  In fact, it is rare in developing countries where people have to grow up fast.  And it’s often skipped in the industrialized world by those who marry early or must go straight to a job after high school.  One could argue that if it were universal, how is it possible to skip it?

But let’s assume that Arnett is right.  At least we know, statistically, there is this changing timeline to adulthood.  What does this mean to society and to businesses?  How about if we start by creating systems of education, health care, and social supports that take this new development stage into consideration.  The Network on Transition to Adulthood, which was formed in 1999, suggests more support for 20-somethings.  For example, expanding programs, such as City Year, which 17- to 24-year-olds spend a year mentoring inner city children in exchange for health insurance, child care, cell phone service, and money for education.  Or the British system of having a “gap year” where kids, after graduating from high school, spend a year traveling or enjoying the world before starting college.  Arnett points out that the Amish have a similar “time out” year, called “rumspringa,” where young adults are freed from their social responsibilities in order to explore the non-Amish lifestyle before being baptized and committing to the community.

Arnett’s opinion is that by allowing Emerging Adults the free pass to develop skills for daily living and gain a better understanding of who they are and what they want out of life, they will become more sensitive, self-aware adults who will make more insightful and better choices throughout their lives.

Consider how many of your potential clients and customers touch on 20-somethings – as customers, as employees, as parents of them…it’s a large age cohort.  Consider what really motivates these emerging adults – the freedom and the time they need to grow up.  Are you and your company assuming your 20-something market achieved all 5 milestones?  How would that change your marketing strategies?

Here’s something to think about.  The strength of Apple’s “i” products may be that they’re ‘unfinished’ just as a 20-something.  It’s about ‘apps’…and I’m not simply speaking of customization or personalization.  It’s more about “fluidity” of experience, service and product.

Are you embracing the ambivalence, ambiguity and this ‘fluidity’ as a right of passage?  20-somethings shouldn’t be viewed as static – within gender, ethnicity, region/location, and lifestyle.  They morph and move.  This fluidity is not about ‘not me’ or ‘you don’t understand’ – these are potential turn-offs.

Consider how you are portraying 20-somethings in your branding messages…. commercials, print, audio, and web?  Build on commonalities and understanding.  And remember that when you cast 20-somethings in your marketing messages geared to older audiences, just to say this is a cool product/service, it may very well turn off the 20s if it doesn’t ring true to them.  And would they consider your brand when they are older?

Most business leaders have achieved their milestones, and are removed by age, experiences, gender, and ethnicity.  Understand your 20-something customers.  Even better, try to spend days in their lives.

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