The Peter Pan Generation: Eternal Teenagers that Will Eventually Grow Up

By Janet Martin

A recent study at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute revealed that the number of 18-year-olds who possess driver’s licenses has fallen from 80 percent to 65 percent over the last 20 years. At first, this seems like a harmless statistic born out of the rise in gas prices and problems with car companies because, after all, the automobile industry is hardly a stable investment at the moment. However, this is only a piece of the bigger problem.

Rather than plunge straight into marriage, a mortgage and careers, most 20-somethings choose to live like they did when they were in their teens. According to Forbes, of the 92 million people between the ages of 25 and 34, 29 percent still live at home with those who raised them. And more, 80 percent are perfectly happy with the arrangement. On top of that, 61 percent tried living on their own, only to have moved back home within the last few years. Generation Y, also known as the Peter Pan Generation, refuses to move out of their childhood homes and hold a job.

Characteristics of Generation Y

So what does all of this mean? Basically, people born approximately between 1985 and 1995 are not moving on after they graduate from high school and college. Members of Generation Y are finding ways to postpone certain rites of passage and remain, as psychology professor Jeffrey Arnett describes it, in a state of emerging adulthood. Rather than enter the adult world, these eternal teenagers are choosing to live with their parents, with no job, no car and no motivation to try and support themselves on their own terms. With the struggling economy, this may seem like a logical and well-formed plan of action. Of course these people are not getting jobs—there are few jobs to be had and if you do manage to get one, there is no guarantee that the job will be enough to sustain you. The problem is that 80 percent of the generation is happy with the situation. There isn’t just a sense of caution, but also a sense of laziness. The idea of the Peter Pan Generation comes from the fact that these young adults, much like J.M. Barrie’s infamous rascal, don’t want to grow up. There is a refusal to move beyond home no matter the economic conditions or the available opportunities elsewhere.

What’s Wrong with a Bit of Praise?

According to Jean Twenge, who holds a doctorate in psychology, the biggest problem with this generation is its ever-growing egotism and sense of entitlement. Due to the recent emphasis on “you’re special just by being you” child bearing, most people born as part of Generation Y feel a constant need for praise and positive reinforcement. This, in turn, creates an employee pool full of people convinced they deserve the best the world has to offer. In other words, having a job for the sake of having a job is no longer satisfying and the work environment must provide enough praise to fulfill the sense of pride this generation acquired as children. Some of these new baby boomers would disagree.

Feelings of Not Wanting To Grow Up Date Back to the Baby Boomers

Although born in 1953, columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson wrote in an article published by the Seattle Times in 1991 that she feels she is part of the Peter Pan Generation. This era “was one in which individualism thrived and materialism got bad PR,” she confessed. “We didn’t buy our home furnishings from a single page in a catalog, or have weekly beauty-shop appointments, or judge all books by their covers or colors. And our songs had words that meant something.”

She continued, “And now, once a year at least, we continue to allow ourselves to be young, in the Joan Baez sense, to ditch practicality and fly on the wings of happy thoughts, like Peter.”

Even though Grimsley Johnson was born during the Baby Boomer Generation, which ranges approximately between 1946 and 1964, she identifies with the Peter Pan Generation for having feelings of not wanting to grow up. What differs from the feelings of Grimsley Johnson and her peers from the feelings of the later Generation Y is that these people did grow up and they only resorted to feelings of childhood on certain occasions, “During the Christmas season, more than any other time, my generation—also known as the Peter Pan Generation for obvious reasons—parts with the rest of the adult world,” Grimsley Johnson wrote in her 1991 article. “We might grudgingly conform the rest of the year, but during the holidays the necktie is loosened, along with the child inside.”

However, if Twenge is correct, then the issues with the Peter Pan Generation are deep rooted and will not be easy to fix.

First Step to Growing Up: Getting Mobile

peter pan generation opportunity center sign

So what can be fixed? The biggest issue, believe it or not, is the driver’s license. Without some form of transportation Generation Y has no way of maintaining a job in their hometown, let alone in another state. According to the Census Bureau, 40 percent of 20-somethings are less likely to relocate to a new state, but they should. Although unemployment is high in states like Nevada with 12.7 percent, California at 10.9 percent, Florida with 9.6 percent and Indiana at 8.7 percent, states like Minnesota, Vermont, and North Dakota have unemployment rates below 5 percent and therefore provide far greater opportunities for employment. But of course, you have to get there first. Getting mobile is the first step. If you can motivate yourself to get a car, it becomes much easier to motivate yourself to get a job out of state. And once you do that, moving out becomes not only easier, but necessary.

Why does Generation Y Become Restless at Work?

Although getting mobile is the first step, the Peter Pan Generation has a complex attitude about working. According to a poll taken by the Pew Research Center, 66 percent of 18- to 34-year-old women and 59 percent of young men say being successful in a high-paying career is “one of the most important things” or “very important” in their lives. On her blog, Rachel, Rachel, Rachell…, the same named Generation Y member feels that “it is all right that I do not see myself as an adult yet, it will come (hopefully), and in the meantime I am free to pursue my passions.” Aiming high is hardly a trait to be condemned, but when waiting turns into hours of Xbox and Facebook, there is a problem—especially when it comes time to pay the bills.

peter pan generation deloitte consulting firm company logo

At the Deloitte Consulting firm, about two-thirds of their younger employees left simply because they wanted to try something new and felt the company made it difficult to transition into different departments, according to an article published by Time magazine. There is a feeling that the only job worth having is the one with the best paycheck, the most benefits and the highest enjoyment factor. This refers back to Twenge’s point of feelings of entitlement. To aid in deterring high turnover, Deloitte eventually assigned consultant Stan Smith to find out what else attracts the Peter Pan Generation to a job and, more importantly, what keeps them at the job. His research provided so much valuable information on Generation Y that Smith is now in charge of recruiting and retaining Generation Y as national director of Next Generation Initiatives. He creates programs at Deloitte that focus on helping people determine their next career move.

peter pan generation young person asleep at their desk laptop listening to music

Based on his research, Smith believes that in many cases the best place for a restless young person is simply another spot in Deloitte. This saves the company the $150,000 cost of losing an employee—not to mention the stress employees’ feel for having to change jobs. The Society for Human Resource Management distributes pamphlets informing companies on the best way to handle Generation Y employees. They recommend informal mentoring, structured accountability and shared responsibility in order to get the most out of these people at work.

Despite what Twenge thinks, the Peter Pan Generation does possess the potential to get up and work. They simply need a little motivation and a push in the right direction. With the economy slowly but steadily on the rise, one can only hope that that will be enough to get the future of the American job market back on their collective feet.

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