- For some millennials, a sense of adulthood has become more attainable during the pandemic.
- Economic forces have long kept millennials from doing the things that used to define growing up.
- Some took on more responsibilities in 2020, from buying houses to nesting to dealing with adult-sized stress.
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It wasn’t until the pandemic that I started making my bed every day.
It seemed like a counterintuitive act before 2020. My bed was trapped by three walls in the tiny bedroom of my rented apartment, which meant I had to climb onto it to smooth out the sheets and duvet, creating as many new wrinkles as I erased. It was too much of a hassle in a world where getting ready for and commuting to work was still a thing. And what was the point, anyway, when I would just climb back into it at the end of the day?
But when my bedroom turned into my office and all my meetings moved to Zoom, I couldn’t bear the sight of unprofessional disarray, one more stressful stimulus that would crowd my already cluttered brain.
It was a new beginning.
I also created a Sunday cleaning schedule, traded in box mac-n-cheese for chicken marsala recipes, and began purging my stuff in hopes of a more minimalist space.
“We’re all thrown out of our normal way of doing things,” psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, who coined the term “emerging adulthood,” told me. He explained that some people could benefit from the creation of a routine that helps them feel that not everything is in chaos.
My effort to exert some semblance of control in an unraveling world also elicited, I came to realize, my first real taste of feeling like an “adult.”
Millennials’ struggles with “adulting” have been long documented, but their journey into adulthood has been a challenging one thanks to a relentless affordability crisis – a macroeconomic trend more compelling than one person’s laziness when it comes to bed-making. (Or maybe not – exhaustion with such domestic tasks is at least partially symptomatic of burnout, another issue afflicting the millennial generation).
The definition for adulthood is subjective, especially for such a diverse group that spans the ages of 25 to 40. But the pandemic has, ironically, brought the traditional view of adulthood – think independence and responsibility – within sight for some millennials, particularly the smaller cohort on the wealthier side of the millennial wealth gap.
Many have taken the next step in their living situation, whether as first-time homeowners or venturing into living on their own. Like me, some have turned to “nesting” activities like organizing and cooking for the first time. And most are grappling with adult-level stress that ages them both mentally and physically.
The pandemic created a new world and a new economy, and maybe also a newly “adult” generation.
Suburban and solo living scream independence
For this group of well-off millennials, adulthood has become more attainable, said Clare Mehta, an associate professor of psychology at Emmanuel College who has been studying established adults ages 30 to 45 during the pandemic. “If you have a partner and you’re thinking about having a family, now there’s a real impetus to move out of the city,” she told Insider.
Many have fled big cities for the suburbs, as historically low interest rates and the option to work remotely made more types of homes viable for the generation. Mehta cited one 30-something married father in her study who had previously told her he wouldn’t feel like an adult until he owned property – he just bought his first house.
Millennials led all generations in homebuying last year, according to Apartment List’s Homeownership report, accelerating a five-year trend in millennial homeownership rates rising the fastest. And 30% of millennials said in a recent survey by Clever Real Estate that the pandemic pushed them to house-hunting earlier than planned.
US Census Data found that homeownership rates increased by 4 percentage points from the second quarters of 2019 to 2020, and younger generations saw the greatest the leaps. Those under age 35 saw a 4.2 percentage point increase and those ages 35 to 44 saw a 4.9 percentage point increase, compared to older age groups who all hovered around an increase of 2 percentage points.
Even for urban renters, those who stayed in cities are embarking on solo living for the first time amid rent drops, finding new lifestyles and a new sense of independence. These urban and suburban upgrades are both a sign of financial independence, which many young adults deem a marker of true adulthood.
The turn to nesting
The onset of social distancing sidelined the experience economy and birthed the solitary leisure economy, in which Americans spent more time entertaining themselves, well, alone. Among other things, it has pushed many Americans into a nesting mindset.
That would explain my sudden desire to organize and clean, and I may be solitary in doing this, but I’m not alone. A life relegated indoors and Netflix organizing shows like “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” and “The Home Edit” have provided a foundation for a decluttering boom in America.
“People are feeling their spaces right now,” Gretchen Rubin, author of “Outer Order, Inner Calm” told Jura Koncius of The Washington Post. “Some people feel like nesting and just want to paint everything. Others feel claustrophobic. Many have figured out they need more elbow room.”
For many millennials, such nesting activities are new. Consider cooking. Many Americans began cooking at home more as restaurants temporarily shuttered, but it was the first time doing so for many millennials, Krishnakumar Davey, president of strategic analytics at IRI, told CNBC.
Millennials also happen to be leading the way in some nesting activities, such as home improvement projects. More than 80% of millennials tackled a home renovation during the pandemic, according to a OnePoll survey, more than any other generation. Spending on home improvement overall increased by 7% in the latter half of 2020 and early 2021, per a February Bank of America note.
Many of these DIY renovators are young females trading in travel and dining for at-home experiences, The Atlantic’s Amanda Mull wrote on the rise of nesting among shut-in Americans back in November. These renovations have been both a coping mechanism for the unemployed, a means to control one’s space, and a way to wile away quarantine days.
As Mull wrote, “What else is there to do?”
The toll of stress
There’s also the emotional burden of dealing with an unprecedented crisis. Research shows that abnormally stressful events not only physically age your brain, but make emerging adults feel at least a year older.
Mental health was generally worse for younger generations pre-pandemic, when diagnoses for major depression in the US were rising at a faster rate for millennials and teens than for any other age group. Since 2013, millennials have seen a 47% increase in major-depression diagnoses. A more recent study by Blue Cross Blue Shield finds that the pandemic has further accelerated the decline of millennial health, including a 12% increase in major depression.
Given the wide age range of millennials, the emotional burden is coming in different forms. For millennials living alone, Mehta said, the stress comes in having to manage their own isolation. Meanwhile, women in their 30s are dealing with increased stress as they juggle working from with unusual childcare arrangements.
Millennials responsible for others and the emotional wellbeing of their family “have a huge emotional burden, trying to keep everything and everyone together,” Mehta said.
The pandemic also showed many millennials how old their parents are. They’ve had to reckon with the fact that their parents are aging and could be considered at-risk individuals, some having adopted the role of adult themselves in an attempt to convince their parents to take precautions early on in the pandemic.
A little bit older
Now, this isn’t all to say millennials are an immature bunch, unable to get their act together until a world crisis hits. Some millennials had achieved typical adult milestones like buying a house and having kids pre-pandemic, and those who didn’t may have felt like adults regardless.
And not every millennial now feels more adult-like. The pandemic is the latest in a series of economic challenges millennials have faced. Arnett said it has really scrambled and delayed things for the younger cohort, the most likely to have lost their jobs. A halted career and no income stream, which makes goals like homebuying seem out of reach, likely pushed any sense of adulthood further away for those affected.
There’s also the 52% of young adults who were quarantining with their parents as of July, which could lead to feelings of regression. “Most people expect to be able to stay on their own,” Arnett said. “They get used to paying their own bills and doing their own laundry and buying their own groceries. And then to come home, it feels like a defeat.”
Much like the growing millennial wealth gap, the pandemic may therefore be exacerbating a millennial adulthood gap, as some move into the trappings of adulthood with all its responsibilities and stresses, and others stand still in extended adolescence or even move backwards. It’s another manifestation of the K-shaped recovery, which has benefited those with means and hurt nearly everyone else.
And, when it comes to nesting, a married woman with kids probably feels a lot differently about picking up chores at home than a single woman like me does, considering it’s setting back gains in gender equality.
Because the pandemic is ongoing, it’s too soon to exactly determine its long-term effects on millennials. But there’s something to be said about the strides made and burdens faced during the pandemic for a generation in the precarious stage that straddles emerging and established adulthood.
Now that the US is readying for a booming “roaring 20s” economy, some millennials are set to come out of the pandemic a little bit older and wiser, both literally and metaphorically.