Today’s affluent twentysomethings have an abundance of choice

Analysis: People now in their 20s are very like previous generations, but they're not the same

This article is part of a series in which a group of Irish twentysomethings discussed issues affecting their lives. Click here to read how they feel about sex and body image, optimism and austerity, Instagram and the "liberal echo chamber". And click here to read their views on rent, drink and drugs.

Ask a sample of adults which “decade” (1970s, 1980s, 2000s) was their favourite, and most will pick the one that coincided with their 20s. It doesn’t matter how economically difficult or politically turbulent that decade was in hindsight: biography trumps history when it comes to happy memories.

Is it the same for today’s twentysomethings: those born in the 1980s and 1990s, who came to adulthood in the 21st century? And how different are today’s twentysomethings from previous generations?

The focus group I co-facilitated for The Irish Times with Sorcha Pollak provided some answers to these questions. I was present as a regular orchestrator of focus groups in a professional capacity, and as someone whose company regularly researches this age cohort – as consumers, voters and employees. I am also a parent of two young adults, an employer of people in this age group, and I was once twentysomething myself – albeit back in the last century.

Let’s start with the similarities between today’s twentysomethings and previous generations.

A person in his or her late 20s/early 30s is very different to the same person in their early 20s. The people in our focus group recognised as much. Adults transition through more milestones in their 20s and early 30s than at any other stage. Not just in terms of education and employment, but also in terms of marriage and parenthood.

Share ambitions

Today’s twentysomethings are no different to previous generations in that regard, though they tend to arrive at these milestones a bit later than their predecessors. And other surveys show most of them share ambitions with older cohorts when it comes to career, love and family formation.

Of course there are differences too. Today’s twentysomethings have more choices and options than previous generations. That’s mainly a function of affluence: they can do things, such as travelling to distant parts of the world, that their parents’ generation could not afford – sometimes they even do so at their parents’ expense.

But it’s also a function of expectations. Previous generations – my own included – had a mental model of our future when we were in our 20s that was more or less the same as everyone else’s. Our sense of destiny was a collective one; shaped by our parents, our peers, our class, our community and our culture.

In contrast, people now in their 20s have a more individualistic take on their lives, “self-authoring” their futures as described by psychologist Jordan Peterson. They are, in a sense, “self made”: closer to the American model of the individual shaping his or her own destiny than to the historic Irish model of collective fatalism.

A strong sense of autonomy can be powerful: young people feel less constrained by the expectations of others, by tradition or by the need to follow a particular life path taken by others before them. Such liberty can, in turn, be a catalyst for creativity, inventiveness and for pushing back boundaries. Technologies heighten the sense of autonomy that drives many of their choices and ambitions.

But there’s a downside to autonomy and shaping your own destiny: you’re also responsible for the consequences of the decisions you make. Too much autonomy can be lonely.

Indeed our research shows that the incidence of loneliness is higher among under-25s in Ireland than among over-65s.

Age of Tinder

Moreover, too much choice can feel burdensome. In the age of Tinder, why limit yourself to one partner? And how do you know that you’ve made the right choice if you do decide to settle down? The abundance and affluence that twentysomethings now experience far exceeds that of previous generations, but it can make it more difficult to choose the career, the partner or even the country you’ll commit to for the rest of your life.

Without the collective guidelines afforded previous generations by tradition, religion, and culture, it gets harder – not easier – to choose.

Of course, talk of affluence and abundance might sound ridiculous to many of today’s young adults as they worry about rent rises (assuming they can find a place to rent), or pay rises (assuming they can find permanent employment).

A natural outlet for such frustrations and concerns is politics, yet this is the least politically engaged cohort in the adult population. The political issues that do engage them occasionally – same-sex marriage, repeal of the Eighth Amendment – speak more to issues of autonomy than the economy.

And so confronted with what Albert Hirschman called “exit or voice”, most of this generation choose exit – either literally in the form of emigration, or culturally – and so their voices seldom feature in the debate about the type of country we can become in an increasingly uncertain and fragmented world.

I do hope they find their voice soon.

Gerard O’Neill is Chairman of Amárach Research