Skip to main content

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — When the "The Wonder Years" ended, Kevin Arnold went on to college, enjoying one last day with friends and family in his small suburban town. The final scenes take place during an Independence Day parade, signifying it's time to leave the nest and finally grow up.

At least that was the case for "The Wonder Years'" Baby Boomer era. Today, growing up looks a little different (and takes a little longer).

The Hartford's Gen Y Speaks Survey tried to pin down when Millennials felt like they had actually grown up by asking more than 500 employed college graduates 21 to 31 years old to pick three defining moments that symbolized adulthood.

"The definition of, and age ranges associated with adulthood, are changing," says Lindsey Pollack, spokesperson for The Hartford's My Tomorrow Campaign. "For previous generations, I would argue that ages 18 or 21 were markers of adulthood, along with getting married, having children or serving your country in the military."

That's not the case any longer. Young people are getting married and having children later, and military enrollment made up less than 1% of the U.S. population in 2010, according to an NPR factsheet.

But what else did the survey uncover?


The majority of Millennials (51%) got that adulthood feeling after they nabbed their first post-college job.

"I would have to say first payday at a job in the field of study I went to college for," reflects Damon Zehner, an electrical engineer from Kenner, La. "At that point, a year after I had graduated, it sunk in that all the work of college had paid off, and now I had the responsibility to start repaying that student loan that loomed over me like a bad shadow. And that I could support myself."

Zehner was one of the lucky ones. When those surveyed were asked to describe their first job, 43% said it was the start of their career; 36% said their first job was nothing more than a paying gig having nothing to do with their desired career and 21% said they took the job just to get their foot in the door at a company they wanted to work at. Women were 10% more likely than men to claim their first job out of college was the start of their career.

Others aren't so lucky. As the Pew Research Center notes, Millennials are stuck with "higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations -- Gen Xers and Boomers -- had at the same stage of their life cycles."

For Danielle Stone, a nanny in Conn., the journey of getting a better job and moving out of the state makes her feel like an adult.

"I still don't really feel like an adult, because I'm still living not far from where I grew up in Connecticut, still working as a nanny, which is what I've been doing for years," said Stone, who graduated from college several years ago. "I've been O.K. with it, but recently, I feel the need to move out of my home state and pursue a 'real' job. That process, she says, "in and of itself is making me feel more like an adult...because I'm doing it all by myself, rather than depending on someone else or just sticking with the status quo."


This generation might be one of the most socially and environmentally conscious one to date, but they certainly aren't hippies. Some 26% of Millennials claimed their paycheck was their greatest asset. More women than men (56% vs. 44%) said making financial decisions, such as starting a retirement account and getting insurance, was a defining adulthood moment. Another finding: Millennials need to start buying life and disability insurance a little earlier, since the don't make that purchase until after starting a family, according to the survey.

Purchasing a car

Millennials are less likely to buy cars than previous generations, so it's no surprise only 7% felt that buying a car was a defining adulthood moment.

Living arrangements and relationships

On average, Millennials thought getting out of their parents' house (38%) and buying a first home (25%) were the most significant life events. Moving in with a significant other barely registered—only 6% put that event in their top three—but a chunk (23%) put marriage in their top three defining adulthood moments.


As a whole, 15% of Millennials polled said turning 21 was one of their defining adulthoods moments, and men were much more likely to think so. Only 8% of females said that turning 21 made them feel grown up, while Millennial men thought that age held more significance: 21% – a little over 2.5 times the women – said turning 21 was when they felt like an adult. Only 4% of women and 8% of men said it was crossing the dreaded 30-year threshold.

But for some people a career, a car, a budget or a marriage weren't turning points. For people like Oscar Soto, an insurance agent from Grenta, La., adulthood came sooner.

"The first time I felt a grown-up was when my aunt let me give a customer change at her store," Soto said. "I felt so badass."

--Written by Craig Donofrio for MainStreet