By the time most of us reach our twenties, we start feeling pressure to grow up—find the right job, commit to a long-term relationship, and settle down. Each marker you check off, it's assumed, moves you closer to reaching your full potential. But this assumption is flawed—full of contradictory advice, and rooted in antiquated ideals.
As a psychologist who studies the science of happiness and love, that's one reason it's been refreshing to see that millennials, by and large, have very little interest in following the same old script. Hundreds of social science studies, in fact, suggest that traditional societal expectations are an awkward fit with the reality that many young adults now face.
But that's also why it's never felt weirder to be a 20-something: Awkwardness occurs when people deviate from or feel uncertain about what's socially expected, and that can be unsettling. Here are a three of the biggest shifts I've seen that are underway—and why it's making things so awkward.
You Want Jobs That Don't Just Pay the Rent
Parents, teachers, and motivational speakers love to preach that you should "follow your passion." But this open-ended expectation is at odds with a dreaded question people love to ask at graduation: "So what do you plan on doing?" The question assumes you've tapped into the elusive concept of "passion," targeted a career that embodies that passion, and marched down some well-laid path to your dream job. It's a hopeful, but overly simplistic assumption because passion and stability are rarely natural companions.
Millennials entered one of the worst job markets in history thanks to a 2007 financial crash that wasn't their fault. Although there has been recovery in the job market, the underemployment rate for millennials remains double (41 percent) that of other generations. Even when people find a full-time job, there's a often sense of dissatisfaction with the work environment and a struggle to find meaning in the work. Only 33 percent of millennials feel engaged and invested in what they're doing, which is not great, but they're actually more engaged than their parents' generation (28 percent) and grandparents' generation (26 percent).
While working conditions aren't necessarily worse than they were for previous generations, twenty-somethings seem determined to avoid a slow death of their soul from a lifetime of occupational malaise. This search for meaningful work is laudable, but it comes with some difficult realities: When people blaze a new trail, the first few miles are rarely paved with money or direction, which means less income, a higher likelihood of living with your parents, and unclear guidelines about how to build a career. All of this can leave you feeling awkward about your professional life, but if you can tolerate the discomfort, the long-term payoff might be a career that is sustainable and meaningful.
You're Taking Way Longer to Say "I Do"
If you're still single AF in your mid-twenties, then you've probably heard your parents casually ask a premeditated question: "So… is there anyone special in your life?" It's annoying, but understandable from their life experience. By age 32, nearly 70 percent of adults in your grandparents' generation had married and 48 percent of those in your parents' generation had married. By comparison, 26 percent of millennials have married by age of 32 and they are far more likely to say that the institution of marriage is becoming obsolete.
The average millennial's hesitation about marriage is understandable because only four in ten Gen-X and Boomer marriages end up both happy and stable. Perhaps as a result, young people appear to be more cautious and contemplative when it comes to dating. That might yield better results in the long run, but the delay also means that young people now spend twice as many years in romantic limbo.
The goal is often to find relationships that are gratifying, but not so blissful that you fall into lifelong commitment before you're ready. Dating, in other words, has become an exercise in medium-commitment—which is an awkward homeostasis to maintain. More than ever, it feels awkward to have conversations to define the relationship, creative stalling tactics create ambiguous situations, and all of this confusion about dating expectations has led some people to swipe left on dating at all.
You're Fleeing Old-School Institutions
When your parents' generation wanted to meet new people, they'd look to their church, or a local political organization. But the power of these institutions has diminished in recent years as millennials, once again, try to find a better way.
Although religion and two-party politics provide a set of common values for people to rally around, millennials tend to be more inclusive, and therefore averse to the exclusionary practices and rigid expectations of these more traditional social institutions.
That means millions of twenty-somethings are suddenly on their own as they figure out a whole new set of more inclusive social standards, ones that allow a wider range of people to feel a sense of belonging. More than other generations, millennials are willing to go beyond just talking about multiculturalism. Generally speaking, you want to get face-to-face with people who have different world views than yours. When cultures differ, so do expectations—and that's part of what make these interactions feel awkward. But a little discomfort is well worth the payoff that comes from turning talk into action.
Ty Tashiro is the author of the new book Awkward: The Science of Why We're Socially Awkward and Why That's Awesome, out today.
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