Millennials Turn Thirty: Now What?

In 1987, as the oldest members of the Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003) were entering kindergarten, the groundbreaking television show, Thirtysomething, began its Emmy-award-winning, four-year run.

The one-hour drama focused on eight Baby Boomers struggling with the conflicting demands of work and family as the generation known for its rebelliousness attempted to settle into the culture and routine of suburban life.

January 2012 marks the date that these “first Millennials” will be 30 years old. For the next two decades, America’s most populous and diverse generation, defined in its teens and 20s by its penchant for social networking and sharing, will enter the phase of life when the choices dramatized in “Thirtysomething” will become central to their generation’s persona.

But, the world Millennial families will be entering is considerably different than the go-go 80s that the Boomers portrayed in “Thirtysomething” enjoyed.

The most obvious dissimilarity between the young Boomers of the 1980s and today’s Millennials is the vastly different economic circumstances that the two generations have experienced.

In one respect, those turning 30 in 2012 are considered the “lucky ones” by their peers. Many of them graduated college and began searching for work before the Great Recession started, enabling these first Millennials to enjoy much higher levels of employment and better paying jobs than those who came later.

Nevertheless, many of the oldest Millennials feel the same burden of college debt and diminished economic prospects as their younger peers. A recent Pew Research study found the average net worth of households headed by those under 35 fell from $11,521 in 1984 to just $3,662 in 2009, a drop of 68 percent. These are hardly the assets required to buy a home or undertake raising a family.

It is not surprising, therefore, that another Pew study found most Millennials postponing marriage until later in life than earlier generations.

The median age of first marriages has never been higher for brides (26.5 years) and grooms (28.7), according to U.S. Census data.

“Thirtysomething’s” focus on the difficulties of married life and the burdens of work among young Boomers made sense in the 1980s when a large majority of American adults were married, and unemployment was lower than it is now.

To be realistic, a show about today’s thirtysomething Millennials would have to include the travails of living in their parents’ house and trying to make ends meet on a part-time job.

Still, those Millennials who can afford it, and some who can’t, will inevitably provide the impetus for family formation in America as they enter their 30s.

A majority of Millennials (52%) consider being a good parent the most important priority in their life. Owning their own home (30%) and having a successful marriage (20%) also rank high on their list of key lifestyle goals and values.

When they do raise a family, in whatever diverse living arrangements they may choose, the greatest number will want to settle in the suburbs. According to a survey by communication research firm Frank N. Magid Associates, 43 percent of Millennials consider the suburbs their “ideal place” to live while cities, small towns, and rural America were each chosen by only 17 percent.

The Bottom Line

Given these Millennial residential preferences and the cohort’s restricted economic circumstances, the current trend toward three generations living under the same roof is also likely to continue.

Because of their size and uniformity of belief, the Millennials will remake America in their image in the coming decades. They have already begun to do so in politics and technology.

Starting in 2012, their influence will begin to be felt in the institution most central to the country’s social and economic life—America’s families. How Millennial families are formed and how they decide to live will determine what it means to be thirtysomething for the first half of the 21st century.