A psychologist reveals the 4 most common misconceptions about 20-somethings

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If you think young adults are shallow and narcissistic, think again.
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Flickr/Charleston Hospitality Group

Among the generally acceptable topics of adult cocktail-party conversation is how awful today’s young people really are.

So it’s no surprise that Gen X-ers and Boomers are positively peeved by those pesky 20-somethings, a group of generally miserable, selfish, and entitled-seeming creeps.

The problem is that research hardly bears out – and in many cases disproves – these generalizations.

To learn more about the myths surrounding 20-somethings, we spoke with Jeffrey Arnett, Ph.D., a psychologist at Clark University who coined the term “emerging adulthood” to describe the period between ages 18 and 29.

We asked Arnett to outline some of the most common misconceptions about emerging adults – and to tell us what his research has found instead. Here’s what we learned.


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Misconception No. 1: They’re stressed and miserable.

Today’s 20-somethings graduated into one of the worst economies in history. Many have massive debt loads, and it’ll be years before they can afford to buy property.

Meanwhile, they’ve got some big decisions to make, like whether and whom to marry, if and when to have kids, where to live, and what career path to pursue.

So it’s no surprise that, in a 2012 Clark University poll, nearly three-quarters of emerging adults agreed that “This time of my life is stressful,” while 56% said they often feel anxious.

Yet a whopping 83% agreed that “This time of my life is fun and exciting.”

In other words, misconception No. 1 is really only a half-truth. Yes, 20-somethings are struggling, but they’re also enjoying this time of freedom and possibility.

Arnett turns to Taylor Swift’s “22” to explain: “We’re happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time / It’s miserable and magical.”

“That’s the truth of it,” he said. “It’s not one or the other; it’s both.”


Misconception No. 2: They’re pessimistic when it comes to relationships.

The divorce rate may be declining in the US, but as of 2014, 53% of marriages broke up.

One would expect that a generation who grew up in a world where most marriages were unlikely to last would be relatively jaded when it comes to romance.

But that same 2012 Clark poll found that 86% of emerging adults said they expect to have a marriage that lasts a lifetime.

These findings suggest that 20-somethings are “really traditional in some ways,” Arnett said. “This ideal of a lifelong marriage is still alive.”


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Misconception No. 3: Women are more concerned than men with balancing work and family.

Though we’ve made significant progress on gender equality, work/life balance is often mistakenly construed as a women’s problem exclusively.

Research suggests that young people perceive the situation differently.

In the 2012 Clark poll, 60% of emerging adults said they expect to give up some career goals in order to have the family life that they want. The most fascinating finding? Equal numbers of men and women responded this way.

“It shows how much things have changed,” Arnett said, “and how much young men care about being close to their kids in a way their fathers were not.”

And while it remains to be seen how work/life balance issues will play out among today’s emerging adults, “they at least are going into [adulthood] with that expectation, that aspiration that they’ll be able to balance family and work commitments successfully,” Arnett said.


Misconception No. 4: They’re selfish and narcissistic.

Arnett takes issue with the accusations, made recently by psychologists and laypeople alike, that young people are narcissistic, selfish, lazy, and entitled.

“I think it’s really unfair,” he said, “because I think they are actually very idealistic.”

That idealism is evidenced in the 2012 Clark poll, which found that nearly eight in 10 emerging adults agreed that it’s more important to enjoy their job than to make a lot of money. Meanwhile, 86% agreed that it is important to have a career that does some good in the world.

Again, only time will tell whether this generation’s views on their career will evolve, and they’ll become more concerned with earning money as they’re saddled with kids and houses.

But as for now, Arnett said, “they want to make the world a better place, and we don’t give them the credit for that that they deserve.”