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Are Your Kids More Lazy, Spoiled and Childish Than Past Generations?

The complex reality behind 20-something stereotypes

En español | Many Americans, especially those who are 50-plus, have the impression that young people today are lazy, selfish and childish, and certainly inferior to what they were when they themselves were young. Is there any truth to these negative stereotypes? Let's take a look.

They're Lazy

 Perhaps the most common knock on today's emerging adults is that they're "slackers." Many people think that 20-somethings avoid work whenever possible, preferring to sponge off their parents for as long as they can get away with it. They think young adults have an inflated sense of entitlement and that they expect work to be fun — and if work isn't fun, they don't want to do it.

See also: How to talk to children after a tragedy.

Young woman lying poolside.

Pascal Broze/Onoky/Corbis

Young adults may appear lackadaisical, but that isn't a fair assessment.

It's true that young people have high and often unrealistic expectations for work, but lazy? No. While they look for their elusive dream job, they don't simply sit around and play computer games and update their Facebook page. OK, some do, and that's where the stereotype comes from, but the great majority of them spend the better part of their 20s in a series of crummy jobs as they search and strive for something better. Have you noticed who is waiting on your table at the restaurant, serving up your latte at Starbucks, working the counter at the retail store, stocking the shelves at the supermarket? Most of them are emerging adults. Many of them are working and going to school at the same time, trying to make ends meet while chipping away at their student debt, the highest in history. It's false and unfair to tar the many hardworking emerging adults with a stereotype that is true for only a small percentage of them.

They're Selfish

Another widespread slur is that today's 20-somethings are selfish.

With this stereotype, too, there is a small grain of truth that has been inflated into a large falsehood. It's probably true that most emerging adults today grow up with a high level of self-esteem, higher than in previous generations. After all, from their earliest years, their boomer parents have been telling them, "You're special!" and "You can be whatever you want to be." So it shouldn't be surprising that they took those messages to heart. By the time they get to emerging adulthood they do believe they're special, and nearly all of them are confident that they will be able to get what they want out of life.

But — and this is the key point — that doesn't mean they're selfish. It simply means that they are highly confident in their abilities to make a good life for themselves, whatever obstacles they may face. And isn't that a good thing? You could say that their high self-esteem and confidence is good psychological armor for entering a tough adult world. Most people get knocked down more than once as they move toward adulthood — by love, work and other dream bubbles that are popped by reality. High self-esteem is what allows young people to get up again and continue striving.

They Never Want to Grow Up

Now that entering the full range of adult responsibilities, such as marriage and parenthood, comes later than it did before, many older adults have scornfully concluded that today's young people never want to be independent. Yes, it's true that many young adults are ambivalent about adulthood and in no hurry to get there. Adult life doesn't look all that thrilling to them.

But never? They never want to become adults? That's not the case. By age 30, about 75 percent of young Americans have a marriage partner, at least one child and a stable long-term job. Most of the rest will reach these milestones some time in their early 30s. So, it's not true that they never grow up. They just want to make use of their emerging adult freedom while they have the chance — go to a different part of the country or the world to live for a while, aim for a long-shot profession such as musician or actor, or just work a low-pay, low-stress job for a while and have a lot of fun with friends. That's not contemptible; it's wise, and we don't give them enough credit for their wisdom. By age 30, nearly all of them are more than ready to trade their footloose freedom for the rewards of enduring bonds to others.

So give them a break! And leave your mind and your heart open to appreciating all the things that make today's emerging adults terrific.

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a Research Professor in the department of  psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., is a leading expert on emerging adulthood. Elizabeth Fishel is a writer specializing in family issues.