Peter Pan Syndrome: What Makes the Millennials Different?

Peter Pan syndrome is the complex most associated with the Millennial generation, who are accused of not wanting to grow up, of wanting to remain perpetual adolescents.

But is this a fair assessment of the largest generation in U.S. history?

Peter Pan Syndrome or Peter Pan Complex

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, where we take a look at a past Agile Lifestyle feature that’s still as timely and relevant as ever. This article has been completely updated and expanded with the latest research and information.

In 1911, the Scottish writer J. M. Barrie published the classic children’s story Peter Pan (which most people know from the Disney movie of the same name).

In it, Barrie expanded the story of the character of Peter Pan, a mischievous imp he invented for the stage play of the same name.

Peter Pan is known as the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (that’s actually the subtitle of the original stage play). Peter Pan spends his neverending childhood having adventures without a care in the world.

Peter Pan syndrome is a concept that’s been used to describe this generation of young adults, known as the Millennials or Generation Y.

Like the Peter Pan of the story, the Baby Boomers accuse this generation of not wanting to grow up. Even Gen Xers, who aren’t much older than the members of this generation, can be seen complaining about Millennial employees who don’t want to work and play by the rules.

But is charging an entire generation with Peter Pan complex fair? And what are the consequences even if the Peter Pan characterization is true?

The Traditional Signals of Adulthood Are Obsolete

Corporate salary and benefits. Homeownership. Marriage.

What do these things have in common?

Increasingly, Millennials are rejecting these traditional signals of adulthood.

The Atlantic calls this group the Cheapest Generation.

Not exactly a charitable way to describe my generation. But from a Baby Boomer perspective that’s obsessed with consumption, it’s probably right.

The article points out that Millennials are not buying into the McMansion and Hummer lifestyles that their parents did.

Instead, young people use car-sharing services like Zipcar. They live in smaller homes and rent. They work unpaid internships, volunteer, or start ventures that they believe in rather than take “safe” corporate jobs.

Jacob Davidson at Time (h/t: The Billfold) noticed the same trend: Millennial spending habits don’t look anything like their parents’ (so far). Here are the 10 categories of spending Davidson identifies as diverging between “the Cheapest Generation” and their predecessors:

    1. Pay TV. Having worked in the television industry, I can tell you that cord-cutting is a real concern inside the cable television networks and providers alike (despite public statements to the contrary). Since quitting my job in December, I’ve done everything from getting a Mohu Leaf to receive over-the-air signals, hooking up a computer to the TV to watch Hulu, and buying a Blu-ray player with the Netflix app preinstalled. What I haven’t done is pay $80+ a month for 200 channels that I wouldn’t watch anyway.
    2. Investments. Here I think Davidson’s argument is off-base. He thinks Millennials are distrustful of Wall Street (as we damn well should be) and are therefore not investing. What I think is really going on is that young people are disproportionately feeling the effects of a shaky job market—and therefore need more emergency funds on hand to weather the rough patches. Tying up money in accounts that you can’t withdraw from without penalty until you’re 59 or older (i.e. 401(k) and IRA accounts) simply doesn’t make sense in a no-job-security environment.
    3. Mass-Market Beer. OK, I guess. But does this have more to do with the rise of craft beers, I wonder?
    4. Cars. People need cars to get to work. Beyond that, cars don’t make any sense as “investments” due to their harsh depreciation. And the environmental impact of gas-guzzling, large, and/or sporty cars worries many green-leaning people of my generation.
    5. Homes. After watching their parents’ net worth get wiped out by the 2008 financial crisis, Generation Y is also questioning the wisdom of mortgaging a home when they don’t expect to “settle down” in one place the way that Industrial Age economies demanded.
    6. Bulk Warehouse Club Goods. This likely has more to do with where Millennials are in their lives (i.e. no families yet) than it does a permanent rejection of businesses like Costco. Everyone I know who has a Costco membership raves about it.
    7. Weddings. The high rate of divorce is persuading many of my generation to date longer and move in together before deciding to marry. Weddings themselves have also become incredibly costly affairs—essentially a huge party you throw for everyone else, as I’ve discovered.
    8. Children. Not there yet.
    9. Health insurance. Younger people more likely to be healthy. Also, recent changes to the law have allowed young adults up to 26 years of age to stay on their parents’ family insurance plans.
    10. Anything you tell them to buy. Gen Y grew up in the twilight of mass media advertising. We fast-forward through TV ads. We make personalized buying choices reinforced by research from review sites like Yelp and Amazon.

Peter Pan syndrome might be real. But it also might be a sign of the changing values of this agile generation.

Peter Pan Complex and the Science of Emerging Adulthood

Work-life balance is a hot button topic right now.

The Baby Boomer generation, and the Gen Xers who followed in their footsteps, did a terrible job of juggling work and life. So article after article is discussing how you can’t have it all, meaning both high-demanding work and family lives.

Digital natives are looking at work in a new paradigm. They don’t want to spend 60 to 80 hour weeks doing mind-numbing work that lacks meaning.

They want integrated lives where they don’t have to act like corporate psychopaths in one context, and caring, conscientious citizens in the other.

The new emphasis on fulfillment, self-expression, and social conscience means that Millennial career paths will look very different from those of their parents. Millennials will deliberate more over the decisions they make regarding work and life.

Neuroscience research suggests that the brains of 20-somethings are still changing well into their third decade:

Until very recently, we had to make some pretty important life decisions about education and career paths, who to marry and whether to go into the military at a time when parts of our brains weren’t optimal yet … It’s a good thing that the 20s are becoming a time for self-discovery.

— Jay Giedd, neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health

An extended period of self-reflection might not be a bad thing for a generation that will have to solve many of the environmental, social, and economic problems left to them by previous generations.

Is Peter Pan Syndrome Inevitable?

One overlooked possibility is that Peter Pan syndrome is the result of us living longer. The longevity megatrend is having a profound effect in many sectors of the economy.

So why not maturity?

A hundred years ago, an unmarried 25 year old woman might be considered an “old maid” or a “spinster.” Nowadays, the average woman gets married in her late 20’s, and marrying young is expressly discouraged.

What some are seeing as a crisis in the next generation might really be a part of a larger background megatrend: We are living longer, so we have more time to explore our lifestyle choices before “locking in” our adult paths.

When the average life expectancy was 60, it might have made sense to expect an 18 year old to be a mature adult.

Now that it’s over 75 and rising, maybe that’s not so reasonable.

The point is, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re talking about emerging adulthood lasting into people’s 30’s, if and when average life expectancy climbs to 90 and above.

How would your life choices change if you knew you would be healthy and able to work until you were 90?

Time as the Most Valuable Resource

Digital natives view time and attention as the most precious resources they have, not money or status.

It’s no longer acceptable to spend years and decades paying your dues before a middle manager allows you to work on interesting projects. The most talented members of the millennial generation aren’t going to climb other people’s ladders.

The days of factory-line management in the style of Henry Ford are over. Agile organizations will be less hierarchical, more project-based, and less top-down in their approach. Millennials will force companies to change their rigid cultures and adapt, or they will simply go elsewhere.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, the Millennial generation will have to grow up. There’s no question about that.

But what kind of generation will we be?

Will Gen Y continue the demeaning managerial practices of the last century? Will we trade our time away to accumulate junk we don’t need to impress people we don’t care about?

Or will we chart a new path?

Children are renowned for their creativity, openness, and optimism.

It strikes me these are precisely the character traits we need at the dawn of the century of agility.

A version of this article first appeared on September 6, 2012.

Image by Richard Bowen.

Opt In Image
How Much Time Would You Save With the Right Tools?
Get the 'App Guide' for Download NOW

In this free guide, I reveal the top 7 apps that make my career and personal life run smoothly. Hint: 5 of the apps I use every day are totally free! Sign up to receive blog updates, exclusive content, and the resource guide FREE!