Extended adolescence as a life-strategy adopted in the face of outstanding boredom.
By Charles Fain Lehman
Time magazine graced the cover of its July 16, 1990 issue with a portrait of the “twentysomething” generation. Those young adults, Time contributors David Gross and Sophronia Scott wrote, suffered a fundamental malaise. They had “trouble making decisions,” feared marriage and avoided commitment, were disgusted by politics, and demanded constant stimulation.
Gross and Scott’s subjects would later be labeled “Generation X.” But their characterization is in part surprisingly reminiscent of today’s “twentysomethings”: Millennials, now in their late 20s to early 40s. Just like their antecedents, contemporary Millennials—particularly the sort of high socioeconomic status (SES) Millennial likely to be profiled by a magazine—exude purposelessness. Constantly anxious and filled with dread, they are the “burnout generation.”
There are lots of vogue explanations for Millennial ennui. It’s global warming anxiety, those same high-SES Millennials say, or student debt, or life “under capitalism.” Maybe, although Millennials are about as wealthy as their parents, and student debt is concentrated among the best-off of them.
Perhaps, though, Millennials are bored because they are living lives conducive to boredom. They have adopted a strategy for success that works by delay, and for which they pay in boredom. And in consequence, they have extended indefinitely that liminal time between school and the thing that should be giving their post-college lives meaning: family. If Gen Xers were the twentysomething generation, Millennials are more so: perpetually, terminally twentysomethings.
What does it mean for boredom to be a strategy? One way to succeed is to take risks—invest in a new business, e.g. But another way to be successful is to make low-risk bets with slower payoffs: bonds, for example. It’s a safer approach, but it comes with a high time cost, the phenomenal experience of which is boredom.
High-status Millennials have been training in this approach for years. Take, for example, their college experience. One way to think about college is that attendance gives you skills. But another way to think about it is that attendance signals to future employers that you have certain qualities. As economist Bryan Caplan puts it, “a law student with a Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford applies. What do you infer? The applicant is probably brilliant, diligent, and willing to tolerate serious boredom.” The educational treadmill—and more Millennials are on it than any previous generation—is about attaining success not just through brains, but through the ability to be bored.
One way we can identify boredom is by the presence of diversions. It is little surprise that as the college-going population has grown—assimilating people who are less and less equipped to make it through—colleges have become more diversionary. The college’s profit model is students paying for (in part) proof that they are the kind of person who can be bored easily; if they want to add the marginal student, they need to make it easier to be bored. Thus the proliferation of climbing walls, student activity centers, and the “college as camp” mentality.
Millennials receive advanced degrees—which signal even higher boredom tolerance—at higher rates than their predecessors. But as of 2020, only 13.1 percent of Millennials had a Masters, PhD, or other advanced degree, accounting for about a quarter of Millennials with any post-high school degree. The remainder left college and entered the workforce, where caution remains a strategy. For example, contrary to conventional wisdom, Millennials switch jobs at lower rates than prior generations, meaning a bet on seniority. They save more and invest less, and are highly averse to debt.
All of this delay has a profound effect on family formation. The average man now gets married at about 30; the average woman, 28, up 7 years for both since 1970. Later marriage means less marriage: As of 2017, 37 percent of millennials age 21 to 36 were married. When Gen X was the same age, the rate was 48 percent; Boomers, 56; and Silent Generation, 78. This decline is a product of two distinct trends: less-educated Americans have become less likely to marry, while more-educated Americans are delaying marriage.
Later marriage converts to later childrearing. The modal mother, historically in her late 20s, is now in her early 30s; births to older women have risen too. The education divide on marriage translates to a difference of child-rearing behaviors: less-educated mothers have children at the same age but out of wedlock, while highly educated mothers delay childrearing until after later marriage. As of 2012, the median age at first birth for women with a high school degree or less was 24; with a college degree it was 28, and a Master’s degree or more, 30. This translates into fewer kids: as of 2019, women with a professional degree had 1.5 kids on average, versus 2.8 for women without a high school degree.
If all those numbers make your head spin, here’s the key takeaway: marriage and childbearing, once an occupation of the early to mid 20s, are increasingly pushed into the late 20s and early 30s. This trend is driven by high-SES millennials, who marry and have kids much later than their antecedents and lower-SES peers.
This is a dramatic change to how Americans spend their time. Up until relatively recently, young Americans would graduate from school, pair off, and have kids. But more recent generations, and particularly Millennials, have dramatically extended the amount of time they spend between school and family. They do this, I have already argued, as a deliberate strategy, spending that time to create a firmer foundation for later family. In fact, they agree with this when you ask them why they delay childbearing, saying they lack the resources, or personal connections, or simply the readiness.
But because of this delay, Millennials have a lot of time to kill. Just as with college, single adulthood is now suffused with diversions to distract from this waiting. That includes social media, and mass market franchises, although Millennials are hardly alone as consumers of these. There are also chemical diversions: As of 2017, the majority of marijuana users were Millennials, leading to a higher rate of marijuana use disorders. Antidepressants remain more common among the old than the young, but Millennials are the first generation to grow up on common SSRIs, meaning their high rates of antidepressant and anxiolytic use probably outstrip prior generations at the same age. (In addition, of course, to the Millennial fixation on therapy, therapy, therapy.)
Another diversion is politics. As one Atlantic writer argued in her “case against marriage,” politics is a substitute for family: “Single women in particular are more politically engaged—attending rallies and fundraising for causes that are important to them—than married women.” And there’s something to that: witness the ferocity with which progressive orgs prosecute interpersonal disputes, often to the detriment of their work. As one young organizer told New York magazine, "Movements are, yeah, about causes and about progress and beliefs and feelings, but the strength of movements comes from social ties and peer pressure and relationships. People are craving this. Your social world intersecting with your politics. A world of our own."
But workplace relationships, contingent as they are, will never be the same as family. The problem with all these diversions, in fact, is that diversion is not the same as meaning: it can only distract from boredom, not cure it. Millennials are bored because they have oriented their lives around waiting for something to happen. To be less bored, they have to do that most radical thing for Millennials of a certain class: get married and have kids.
There are, of course, lots of objections. They can’t because they don’t have enough wealth yet! (Maybe, if you have a college degree and are married, you’re probably fine.) That excludes non-heterosexuals! (There was, in fact, a whole social movement to let gay people form families, and it succeeded.) They can’t because of global warming! (That’s silly.)
At root, these objections are about that Millennial standby: risk aversion. And family is a risk. A friend—who has, mercifully, escaped the commentariat—made a similar argument back in 2013 at a pro-life conference. Talking about why people have abortions, she suggested the problem is not a lack of responsibility, but a surplus of it. “We are pathologically terrified of risk and I think that we have this enslavement to our own ideas of respectability, our own ideas of our life plan, our commitments, our existing duties such that something as radically changing as a new life doesn’t fit in with those existing duties,” she said. “To accept that life would be the irresponsible choice, and that’s the framework from which a lot of people are operating.”
The same thing is true for an expected child, though: no child is truly planned, because all children bring unexpected and enormous changes. It is however out of this unpredictableness—this “alterity”—that the meaningfulness of family life is derived. A child is not a diversion, something which exists wholly to stimulate our individual selves; it exceeds ourselves, and so provides meaning.
Of course that experience is risky, and so alien to a group so comfortable in their risklessness. But a life without risk is a boring life. And Millennials are, as we’ve established, terminally bored. So perhaps more risk is what they need.
Charles Fain Lehman is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal.
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