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Navigating Post-Recession Adulthood

Thirty-somethings today face different issues than previous generations.

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Millennials are hitting traditional adult milestones later.

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This week, as I interviewed financial experts for a story on how to manage money in your 30s, one theme became very clear: The third decade of life is not what it used to be.

The traditional milestones of adulthood, including marriage, homeownership and parenthood, which used to fall onto 20-somethings like dominoes, now arrive later, or not at all, and in a less predictable order. In March, the Pew Research Center reported that the median age Americans marry for the first time is now 29 for men and 27 for women, which is the oldest on record. And almost half the babies born to millennial women in 2012 were outside of marriage. 

The Great Recession might be the most obvious factor driving these shifts. The Pew report points out that millennials face more student loan debt and higher unemployment (and underemployment) rates than previous generations, which contribute to lower levels of wealth and income levels. Many of them also graduated and sought first jobs during the peak of the recession, which further hurt their prospects.

But there are also broader cultural shifts leading to a delayed path to those traditional markers of grown-up life. The Network on Transitions to Adulthood, an academic group supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, has noted that young adults were more likely to live at home and delay marriage as early as the late 1990s, well before the Great Recession.

As Chatzky pointed out in my interview with her, the best money moves for a person depend more on his or her life stage than numerical age. A single 35-year-old with no responsibilities beyond themselves faces a very different set of financial challenges than a stay-at-home mom of two. The commonalities revolve around bulking up savings, paying off debt and taking out the appropriate insurance policies, but within those recommendations, there’s a lot of room for customization.

For example, financial expert urge 30-somethings to bulk up savings accounts to make sure they can take care of themselves in the event of an emergency or temporary job loss. A 30-something with a full-time job with benefits will also want to make sure she is funneling money into her 401(k) and taking advantage of any employer-matching benefit, while a freelancer with no dependents will likely need to prioritize liquid short-term savings given the ebb and flow of his income.

When it comes to insurance policies, parents need to take out life insurance policies (as well as use other estate planning tools) that would provide for their children in the unlikely event of their death. Renters should check up on their renters’ insurance policies, which many people fail to do, despite the importance of protecting yourself from theft, fire and other unexpected disasters.

Many financial experts also emphasize the importance of reviewing goals and priorities, since many 30-somethings are starting to get more established in their careers and might face any number of big decisions, from whether or not to buy a home, change jobs or careers, or become a spouse or parent. Those priorities are as varied as people themselves, and anyone in a relationship has to coordinate all those decisions with a partner.

Despite all that variance, some generalizations about the decades still hold true, at least for many of us. Chatzky told me that her mother used to say, “Your 20s are for exploration, and your 30s are when you get serious,” a maxim that Chatzky thinks still holds true. She adds that your 30s are your “trajectory years,” when you continue building on the career progress you started in your 20s.

Many 30-somethings, though, are still trying to find that trajectory, after getting knocked off course by the recession. If 40 is the new 30, then there’s still time to find that momentum.