Justine Pope, 28, on a lunch break from her multiple jobs.
Justine Pope, 28, on a lunch break from her multiple jobs. - 

Young adults face economic challenges their elders never had to contend with.

Unemployment hovers near 20 percent  for 16-19-year-olds. That's higher  than it was before the recession, and student debt loads continue to mount.  Salaries, meanwhile, are lower in real terms for many entry-level jobs than they used to be.

This is causing the so-called "Millennials" (born between 1980 and 2000) to postpone a host of life-cycle and financial decisions, says Paul Taylor, senior fellow at the Pew Research Center, and author of the new book “The Next America: Boomers, Millennials and the Looming Generational Showdown.”

“Looking at some of the traditional milestones of adulthood—getting a job, finding a partner, getting married, having children, buying a house, buying a car,” said Taylor, “every one of those milestones is happening later in life for this generation of young adults.”

Pew recently published a paper showing that compared to their parents and grandparents, today’s young adults are less mobile—they’re hesitant to move out of state for jobs or relationships. And they live with roommates, or with mom and dad and other extended family members more too.

“A lot of this... change,” said Taylor, “is driven by the 20-somethings, and now even the 30-somethings, who are still living with mom and dad because he or she hasn’t found a marital partner, is having trouble getting jobs, maybe is getting an internship or maybe is a barista.”

It’s often described pejoratively as a generation that has “failed to launch,” said Taylor. But Pew’s research shows that parents, and Millennials themselves, don’t necessarily see it that way.

“Look, if there aren’t any jobs out there,” said Taylor, “hanging out with mom and dad isn’t a bad deal, the refrigerator’s usually stocked and you don’t have to put coins in the washing machine. And the generations actually get along pretty well.”

Of course, that’s not always true. Lucas Cook is in his early twenties, and recently moved out of his parents’ home in suburban Portland, Oregon, into with friends. He lived at home while he went to a local college and stayed there after he graduated.

He calls his new roommate-living arrangement: “A music and meditation pad. It’s super-nice, it feels like a new level of freedom.” And what was living at home like? “Super-intense. My parents have very different ideals than I do. And so it was a process of coming away from them ideologically while still being in their house, and that was really stressful.”

Cook plays conga drums and he’s started playing gigs, helping him to move out on his own.

Justine Pope is 28, and she is just now moving into her own place after living with her parents and roommates since college. Pope has held down three of four jobs simultaneously through the recession—law firm assistant, yoga teacher, gardener—and never made much more than $25,000 per year.

“How I live right now is pretty month to month, and I’m fine, I’m not ever struggling, I always make my rent,” said Pope. “But I’m not increasing from there. I don’t have savings, I don’t have a retirement.”

She said buying a home would be “unimaginable to me. When my mom was my age, she had had her first kid, they were on their way to buying a home. And I feel the life that I’m living now, while very happy, is not setting me up for a comfortable middle-aged lifestyle. I really hope to be a stable middle-aged person.”

Bill Emmons, senior economic advisor at the Center for Household Financial Stability at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, thinks many in Pope's and Cook’s generation will eventually catch up with the major financial life-decisions they’ve delayed--primarily, he thinks, because of the bad economy.

“Life expectancies keep rising and by the time Millennials reach their fifties and sixties, they may be looking at another 10 or 15 years of work,” said Emmons. “Maybe everything could be extended. There are some limits on that—childbearing can’t be delayed forever. But buying a house can.”

But other scholars, including Paul Taylor at Pew, think the pattern of young people not making these traditional life-cycle moves could be long-lasting—a reflection of the changing culture, not just the bad economy Millennials have come of age in.

Follow Mitchell Hartman at @entrepreneurguy