Tradition demands that each new generation of young adults be seen as heralding the demise of civilization as we know it. Some generations do better than others at living up to this reputation, of course. How are today's 18-25-year-olds faring? A survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press yields a mixed verdict.
On a superficial level, the 18-25s seem eager to justify their elders' sense of alarm. Much has been said about young adults' indifference to standards of privacy, given the amount of autobiographical material they post online. More than that, many 18-25s go out of their way to make themselves conspicuous. Thirty-six percent have a tattoo, 30 percent have a piercing "in a place other than your ear lobe" and 25 percent have dyed their hair "an untraditional color." They're often dismissive of older norms of propriety and legality as well. Among behaviors deemed acceptable by significant numbers of them are smoking marijuana (41 percent), downloading/sharing music files without paying (46 percent), drinking "a lot of alcohol" (30 percent) and using cable TV or a wireless connection without paying (19 percent).
In other respects, though, today's young adults are perfectly conventional. For all the talk now of one's 20s as a period of extended adolescence, just 16 percent of the 18-25s agreed that "It's really not necessary for someone in their mid-20s to know what they are going to do with the rest of their lives." Conversely, 82 percent agreed that it's important for people of that age "to have a good plan for what they are going to do with the rest of their lives." For lots of them, such a plan includes ordinary domesticity. Fifteen percent are already married (and a fast-moving 2 percent already married and divorced). Of those who are still (or again) single, 57 percent said they "definitely" want to marry and another 28 percent said they "probably" want to do so. Among those who don't have children (27 percent already do), 52 percent definitely and 34 percent probably want to take the parental plunge.
Have 18-25s rejected the materialistic tendencies of their elders? Not so you'd notice. When asked to cite the "most important" goal among people in their own generation, a landslide 64 percent of the 18-25s picked "to get rich," leaving "to help people who need help" as a distant runner-up (12 percent). That's consistent with a notable absence of the alienation one associates with their life stage. Thirty percent of the survey's respondents categorized themselves as "very happy" and 63 percent as "pretty happy" with the way their lives are at present. Just 6 percent described themselves as "not too happy."