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New Poll: Reality may bite, but 30-somethings stay wildly optimistic

Clark University Poll of Established Adults: “Busy, Joyful, Stressed – and Still Dreaming Big” by Jeffrey Arnett
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Jeffrey Arnett is the developmental psychologist from Clark University in Massachusetts who has spent his career studying young people. He was the first to describe a new life stage for Millennials, “emerging adulthood,” to account for their tendency to marry and settle down later, and bounce around in their 20s longer looking for meaning and purpose in a kind of extended adolescence.

In two previous national Clark polls of Millennials and their parents, Arnett found that, far from the selfish slackers of stereotype, vast majorities wanted to live lives of meaning and to do good in the world, and that most were still close to their parents. Nearly 90 percent were supremely optimistic about the future, and confident that they would get what they wanted out of life.

Now, in his latest poll, a nationally representative survey of more than 1,000 25-39 year-olds, which is being released this month, Arnett probes what has happened as emerging adults in their 20s become more established adults in their 30s. Arnett wanted to know, would they be as optimistic and confident, even after hitting the job market at the worst of the Great Recession and experiencing high unemployment rates and record levels of student debt?

In other words, what happens when Milllennials move out of their parents’ basement?

The following is an edited transcript of a conversation.

Q: Why look at 25- to 39-year-olds?

Arnett: I’ve been studying emerging adulthood, people 18 to 29, and have always been so struck by how optimistic they are, almost universally, regardless of whether there are any rational grounds for it. They figure things are going to be great, eventually.

To me, the 30s is sort of, eventually. That’s when you find out what life really has in store for you. Did you find your soul mate? Are you living the life you thought you would? This poll was a chance to find out.

Q: And are they?

Arnett: They still overwhelmingly feel this optimism. That was a surprise. Eighty-six percent agree with this statement: “I am confident I will eventually get what I want out of life.” But what is more amazing to me, and surprising is that 77 percent agree with this statement: “At this time of my life, it still seems like anything is possible.”

That’s less than the 18 to 29-year-olds, but it’s still ridiculously high, like, what are they talking about? (laughing.) The vast majority (of young people surveyed) are in a relationship, have a kid, a job they’ve had for five years or more. How is anything still possible? I don’t know. It’s amazingly resilient, the optimism they’ve had since their emerging adulthood.

Q: What do you make of that optimism? Is that part of the American character, believing in the American Dream?

Arnett: It may be. Or is it magical thinking? I do know that it’s a real psychological resource. You almost have to believe you’re eventually going to get what you want, despite your difficulties, that anything is possible, because that’s what keeps you going.

In that sense, the findings about work are really interesting. Fifty percent agreed that they haven’t been able to find the kind of job they really wanted. And 56 percent agree that they haven’t made as much career progress as they would have hoped for by now. That’s over half!

As emerging adults, we found young people were really intent on finding a job that they enjoyed and that does some good in the world. And now we see that in their 30s, at least half or more haven’t found it. But they still hope they will. They’re not reconciled to having this blah job and staying in it for the next 10 or 20 years. They still, somewhat amazingly, still have the sense that anything is possible.

Q: How does that compare to previous generations? Is it simply a characteristic of youth to be optimistic in the face of everything?

Arnett: We don’t have survey data that goes back that far. But we do know that Baby Boomers did invent the idea that work should be fun. Their expectations did go up, because they were intent on remaking the world in so many ways – making the shift from a manufacturing economy, where, let’s face it, none of those jobs were fun, to a service and information economy, where a lot of those jobs may not be fun, but there are more opportunities for creativity, leadership, working in teams and innovation.

So Millennials’ Boomer parents invented the concept that work would be enjoyable, but Millenials grew up thinking it was their birth right.

Q: You found that about three-fourths of these more established adults were in close relationships – about half married, one quarter cohabiting or in a relationship and about a quarter single. And even though marriage rates are falling, 79 percent of single 30-somethings said they’d like to marry some day. And that those in relationships, 87 percent said they’d found their soul mate. What else did you find?

Arnett: This is the time when two things come into inevitable collision – this is the time most people have young children, and also the time to really build a career. I was really interested in how overwhelmed they would feel.

I did find some things I expected: the number one source of stress: feeling there’s too much to do and not enough time to do it all in. And their top source of enjoyment, is having time to themselves. Which I interpret to mean – it’s important because they almost never get any!

But I was surprised how positive people were overall – that they really do feel this is a fun and exciting time of life. (Ninety percent said being a parent brought them “more joy.”) I was really surprised that 70 percent said they felt they had a great deal of freedom. I don’t know what they’re talking about.

And yet a lot are feeling anxious and depressed – 44 percent say they often feel anxious, 28 percent say they often feel depressed. It’s less so than people in their 20s, but it’s still a lot. I thought a lot of the anxiety in their 20s came from not knowing – am I going to find a partner, a decent job? And that it would ease more in the 30s, and was surprised that it didn’t.

Q: You write that one of the most disturbing findings in the poll is that so many young adults in their 30s don’t feel they have enough education. And that was true whether they had a high school degree or less or a four-year-college degree or more.

Arnett: Yes. In this poll, 61 percent say they wish they had obtained more education that they have now, which is really striking. It was especially high among Latinos – 81 percent, and African Americans, 70 percent. In the 2012 Clark poll of emerging adults, most of them said that they saw a college education as really valuable, but the majority thought they could succeed without it. Now, in their 30s, they’re finding it’s not so easy. Seventy percent say they expect to get additional education and training. They’re all finding that, in this new economy, they haven’t prepared themselves enough, and they really need more education than they have.

In that sense, reality is really biting in the 30s.

And 43 percent say they have not been able to find enough financial support to get the education they need. That says to me that, as a society, we’re not making enough investment in this. In the 19th century, we concentrated on primary education. In the 20th, secondary education. Now, in the 21st, we’re going to have to concentrate on tertiary education, because this transition with fewer and fewer manufacturing jobs and more and more jobs requiring skills is only going to continue.