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There was a time not so long ago when a popular high school graduation gift was a suitcase. Not for nothing, this gift. It marked the young person as a newly minted member of the adult clan, bound for independence and autonomy. Armed with a wallet full of small bills from family, friends, and neighbors, and either a dictionary for college or a pair of new work boots for the factory floor, high school graduates set off to conquer the world with their suitcases in tow.

Young adults once hit the road on a clearly marked path. The first stop was college, some training, or the military. Next up was a job. Marriage followed, and then children. Between marriage and kids, the new family bought a home. All of this was accomplished by age 25—and often in that order. …

From the vantage point of parents and 18-year-olds today, this beeline to adulthood is unfathomable. Move out? Who can afford it? A college degree and a job by age 21—no way. Marriage and kids by 25? Unheard of. Today, one-half of those between ages 18 and 24 have not left their childhood bedrooms, let alone landed a job, married, or had children of their own. This is a 37 percent increase over 1970. And an even bigger jump in living at home has occurred for those ages 25 to 34—a 139 percent increase since 1970. Some of these young people never left the nest and others have boomeranged back. Regardless, this sizable increase is a strong clue to how much the transition into adulthood is stretching. Today’s graduation gift might as well be a GPS device because the signposts on the road to adulthood seem to have all but vanished.

What happened? If we’re to believe the media, these changes are the result of too much coddling and too few hard knocks. Spoiled and indulged at every turn, today’s young adults are a generation of stunted Peter Pans dodging the serious business of adulthood. Fifteen years ago, you couldn’t pay twenty-somethings to live at home with their parents, even if it meant renting roach-infested apartments and eating Ramen noodles every day. They sucked it up, cut corners, and survived. Today, some young people are staying at home past their thirtieth birthdays.

But a peek under the rug of easy anecdote reveals a much more complex story, a story we tell in this book. The media and others may paint today’s young adults as spoiled slackers, implicitly blaming parents for their children’s failure to launch. But the real story largely lies largely elsewhere, in a host of changes that today affect how young adults think about education, work, love, home, and country. Like the butterfly that flaps its wings in Indonesia, causing a thunderstorm to erupt in New York, the events and upheavals of the past few decades have unleashed a perfect storm just as this generation’s high school graduates were poised to launch themselves onto the tried and true road to adulthood. These forces have shredded the old rule book for when to leave home, how long to spend in college and when to marry and settle down. The new rule book, meanwhile, is still being written, leaving much ambiguity and uncertainty for young people and their families as they try to make their way. It is a particularly perilous time for those least prepared to compete in this high-stakes world.

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