Nations mustn’t become “Neverlands”
The kids are closing in on 30, but they still live at home with parents and are without jobs, spouses or children. Are the ranks of a Peter Pan Generation rising?
From the outside looking in, Peter Pan’s “Neverland” might seem enticing. The springtime of life appears to be eternal and the duties and responsibilities of adulthood are nowhere to be seen. But what if you were trapped there?
Popular culture has coined the expression “Peter Pan Syndrome” to refer to young people who seem to be evading the responsibilities of adulthood.
But too often this is not a matter of choice. Over the past couple of decades a growing number of young people have become stuck in an enduring adolescent time warp, unable to find steady jobs, move away from their parents’ homes or start their own families.
This is a major concern for Vegard Skirbekk and his colleagues at the International Institute of Applied System Analysis in Austria. Skirbekk teamed up with W. Sanderson and M. Stonawski in writing an analysis titled “Young Adult Failure to Thrive Syndrome”, published in the Finnish Yearbook of Popular Research.
Many young people the world over are in this predicament, even if they have college educations.
These tendencies have been explained nationally on the basis of local or temporary conditions. But Skirbekk asserts this new phenomenon is overtaking nearly the entire industrialised world.
Twixters and NEETs
None of the demographers and economists this journalist contacted were particularly concerned about the trend for young people to be trapped on the threshold of adulthood. Skirbekk and colleagues write in their article that the problem is not getting enough attention.
The press and popular culture in many countries have coined phrases that specifically refer to people in this predicament.
In the USA they are known as twixters, in Spain as mileuristas. Japan has freeters, hikikomori and paracite singles, whereas the UK has its NEETs. Germany calls them Generation Praktikum and France has its Génération précaire.
Skirbekk and colleagues have another name for this unfortunate phenomenon. They call it the “failure to thrive syndrome”.
The researchers see the phenomenon echoed in statistics on the economic status of young adults, as well as surveys of their well-being, health and living situations.
Earning less than before
Skribekk says that the stats on incomes and living conditions show that more young people are living in relative poverty.
The OECD has calculations of the incidence of poverty in different age groups, with numbers back to the 1970s. It defines the relatively poor as people who earn less than half of the mean income in the country where they live.
These developments are clear, according to Skirbekk.
“Our analyses show that the wages of men aged 25-34 over the past decades have developed less well than those of 45-54-year-olds. For all the countries we have data on, the relative earnings of young people have diminished with time when we look at the data from the 1980s to the 2000s.”
A study from Sweden shows that people aged 20 to 40 live under more reduced circumstances than they used to, whereas 60- to 64-year olds have advanced in wealth.
The researcher thinks young people are paying a disproportionate share of the price for recent reforms in employment terms, welfare and pensions.
Young adults are also the least protected by trade unions, which often operate on the seniority principle – when a company is downsizing the last person to be hired is the first to go. Older people have more job security and young people are less likely to obtain permanent positions.
“We have seen how stagnation in many countries has affected young people in particular,” says Skirbekk. Studies that include Norway, Sweden and Finland show that young men were still having problems finding jobs long after the financial setbacks of the 1990s were over and the situation had become better for other age groups.
There are many signs indicating that young people live with more fragile finances than they used to, write Skirbekk and colleagues.
Compared to parents
When parents compare the material living standards they had decades ago with those of today’s young adults, their offspring’s problems might seem minimal. Look at the young people’s material goods, choices of exotic foods, not to mention all the electronic gadgets!
So why do many young people feel like they lack the economic wherewithall to establish their own adult lives?
Skirbekk says it’s important to remember that young people base their hopes and expectations on the consumption levels and standard of living they now see in their parents’ generation. Since that looks out of reach, they feel like failures.
Research shows that comparisons of our earnings against others is a key element of self-assessment. Our relative wealth - or lack of - it is actually more important than real earning levels.
Skirbekk says we can also see a correlation between changes in young people’s incomes and the suicide statistics for young men.
The researchers do not say the economy is fuelling the suicide statistics, but they see the suicide rate drop in periods when incomes rise. Likewise, at times when real income drops, suicides start to soar.
They believe that the low incomes and unstable employment conditions that beset many young people are having a real effect on these young adults and society in general.
Ready –set – wait!
If Skirbekk and his colleagues are correct, this phenomenon strikes young people at a highly vulnerable time. In their 20s and 30s, young adults need to make a number of existential choices with consequences that can last a lifetime.
What profession should they pursue? Where should they live? Should they get married or find a partner, and in that case, who? Should they have children?
A stumble at the starting gate can have a negative impact that could last their entire lives, Skirbekk says.
He points out in his article that earlier research has shown how ample wages, a satisfactory place to live and stable employment conditions are the greatest prerequisites when young people are deciding whether to start a family.
Low and unsteady income can make young people delay having children, maybe putting it off until it’s too late. This could lead to a decreasing population in future generations.
Studies show that young men from a low income bracket are more often single than men with bigger pay checks. Skirbekk writes that young men with higher pay are often viewed by women as more attractive partners and potential fathers to their children.
Even in the Nordic countries with their advances in gender equality, many women still like to see the man as the family’s breadwinner.
Less difference in productivity
Skirbekk thinks it is time to get the ball rolling to improve the lives of young people.
“This should be the topic of broad public debate,” he says. “When we discuss reforms to ensure that future pensioners get the welfare schemes they are entitled to, the lion’s share of the burden shouldn’t be shouldered by young people.”
Skirbekk also thinks we need to compare the incomes of young people to those of their parents or grandparents.
The tendency today is for older people to earn considerably more than their juniors. This does not necessarily equate to higher productivity among those with more years of experience.
Skirbekk and colleagues write that sound solutions for the society of tomorrow need to account for the needs of all groups.
If, on the contrary, governments try to solve financial problems at the expense of young people, we could be facing greater problems in the long run.
“Developing strategies to arrest the spread of failure to thrive syndrome among young adults, in order to keep them vibrant contributors to our societies, should be a priority for policy makers,” the researchers wrote.
Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no
Translated by: Glenn Ostling
- W. Sanderson, V. Skirbekk & M. Stonawski, Young Adult Failure to Thrive Syndrome, Finnish Yearbook of Population Research.