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The Dejection of Adulthood

Even Russians with higher education and steady jobs are feeling more despondent and less optimistic


Most Russians complete their studies and land a job by the time they turn 30, but achieving other milestones of maturity is proving more difficult. By the same age, only one in three Russians has married and had their first child. Moreover, Russians not only become more responsible and self-confident as they grow older, they also become unhappier. An increasing number of adults see the age of maturity as a period of stagnation. HSE University researchers examined which events and feelings are part of growing up for Russia’s millennials.

The Self-determination Stage

Getting an education, a first job, and separating from parents are considered traditional socioeconomic events of the transition to adulthood — the stage at which a person becomes self-sufficient. But growing up is also marked by demographic events: the first serious relationship, marriage and having children. What’s more, ‘demo’ relationships as a test-run for marriage usually occur by the time people turn 30, whereas official marriage and the birth of the first-born often happen even later.


But these are events. There are also feelings that accompany adulthood. These include a sense of independence (including financial independence), the ability to act autonomously, individual choice, self-control, and responsibility.

What characterises adulthood? ‘You start to solve key issues yourself and plan for the future’, 29-year-old Dmitry told IQ.HSE. ‘Before that, your parents did all this’. According to Marina (26), ‘Some things begin while in university. For example, you work at the same time. But that is not completely adulthood. Then you choose a company, a firm, live on your own, are in a relationship — this is when confidence appears,’ she said.

Whereas childhood and adulthood are usually viewed as stages in which a person is autonomous and self-sufficient, youth is often seen as an ‘intermediate’ phase, as a transition from one state to another. Hence, it is traditionally associated with instability, partial dependence and vulnerability. At the same time, U.S. psychologist Jeffrey Arnett coined the term ‘emerging adulthood’ to describe the period from 18 to 29 years of age that is not a definite state, but a frequently fragmented process whose component elements might occur in any order.

The ‘final point’ — adulthood — is associated with forming ‘full personhood’. This entails access to a variety of resources, autonomy and the status of a full citizen and partner in interactions.

As Vladislav (28) told IQ.HSE, adulthood is a ‘position of stability: a certain life puzzle has fallen into place. Everything is also clear concerning your values; everything is serious.’ His girlfriend, Anastasia (26) added, ‘They say that young people are immature and don’t want a serious relationship, to get married. But actually, that is probably a special type of responsibility, to not marry immediately but to try it out, evaluate it.’

Another young man, Dmitry, spoke of how his parents grew up. ‘Dad got a job and married almost immediately. For him, everything happened at once and quickly’. Dmitry himself first graduated from university and took an internship abroad. ‘I was 26 when I arrived. I went to work in a company in a good position. I met my girlfriend at the age of 27. We want to marry at the end of the year,’ he said.

Another interlocutor, Anton (30), believes that ‘today, everything is the same for adults and our generation’. He explained, ‘Life never stays the same forever. It changes for everyone. It can unfold in completely different ways. There is no set and rigid path.’ In his opinion, ‘Growing up can last a lifetime, if it happens at all.’

Not the Standard Biography Anymore

As the researchers noted, today’s scenario no longer resembles the habitual life path in which everything follows the strict order of studying, working, starting a family. Compared to Soviet biographies, when many events in the maturation process were concentrated in a single time interval, those same events are now increasingly ‘spread out’ and disordered. Some ‘plot points’ conflict, while others — such as marriages or having children — are postponed.

In the ‘archetypal’ pattern of maturation set by the post-war generation in the 1950s and 1960s, about one-half of men had already managed to get an education, find a steady job, marry and have children by the age of 25. Today, that seems like record speed. ‘At 25, many are still studying,’ said our respondent, Vladislav. ‘Weddings are rare at that age. People aren’t in a hurry.’

The order in which events occur is changing now. According to Anastasia, ‘People might get married even after their children are born, sometime in their 30s.’ Marina also spoke of ways in which the life scenario is ‘rearranged’. ‘I was already married when I finished my studies at 24. My parents were surprised. They got their college degrees first [and then married]. But now we study our whole lives — that’s how it is. But no one forces you to have children early. You can give birth at 40 if you want to,’ she said.

The diversification of the maturation process is partly due to the growing number of constantly changing occupations, the changing labour and housing markets and the growth of social media and consumption. Social stereotypes are disappearing. A wide range of ways to live are emerging — and starting a family seems optional.

However, not only are biographies losing their ‘typical structure’, but the boundaries between various life stages become blurred. As Anton told IQ.HSE, ‘Everyone has their own life path. Everyone also matures differently. At what point are you an adult? At 30 or later? For some, it happens only at 40.’ But he added that this does mean that there is a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ approach. Vladislov agreed. ‘Everything is relative — events, age. After marrying, my parents didn’t get a place of their own, but lived with their grandparents. But they were conscious adults — there were just problems with housing. We live separately from our parents, but I wouldn’t say that I’m fully mature.’

Growing up in Different Ways

Due to ‘fragmentation’ of the process and the lack of a specific onset of maturity, researchers working with Canadian youth introduced the concepts of ‘the first and second stages of maturity’ that can be extrapolated to other countries as well. The first stage includes full-time work, completion of education and leaving the parental home. The second involves entering into a partnership, having children, and buying a home. The researchers noted that there is a significant time gap between the first and second stages. Whereas the first-stage events occur rather quickly, those of the second stage take longer. And, although many young people mature according to the traditional scenario, researchers identified four additional transition profiles:

 ‘fast adults’ (go through all the stages faster than their peers);

 ‘unsure adults’ (began working immediately after school, but postponed other transitions);

 ‘adult students’ (completed most of the transitions on schedule, except for education);

 ‘late adults’ (spent a lot of time and energy on their studies and, thus, completed this stage later than usual; other events are also delayed).

Family background largely determines how a person matures: their parents’ socio-economic status (income, status, level of education), as well as their cultural needs and values.

Thus, people from high-income families have the opportunity to receive an education over an extended period because their parents can afford it and are willing to support them. Conversely, young people from low-income families try to start earning money sooner to help their parents.

Revolutionary Approach

According to research data, over the past half century in Russia, life paths started becoming distinctly non-standard among the cohort that passed through their youth in the 1990s — those who were born in the second half of the 1960s and the 1970s. Their maturation has become more individualised and non-linear than were the classical models of the mid-20th century. In the late 1980s and the following decade, living conditions in the country changed dramatically. New job opportunities and ways of making money appeared that influenced the maturation process.

Russian demographers identify three models of maturation for Russians:

 the ‘Soviet’ model (the generations born in 1940-1949, 1950-1959 and 1960-1969) that adhere closely to the traditional model, are predictable and for whom maturation events occurred in their younger years at brief intervals;

 the ‘transitional’ model (the generations born in 1930-1939 and 1970-1979) that grew up during periods of instability and whose members postponed some events and prioritised others;

 the ‘post-Soviet’ model (the generation born in 1980-1986), that begins to resemble the ‘modern’ model in which events are postponed and occur at greater intervals and in an unpredictable sequence.

‘My parents were born in 1974 and 1975,’ Andrey (23) told IQ.HSE. People no longer had to all live in the same style, as it was in the Soviet Union. They tried to live in a new way. My dad first tried his hand at business, and then graduated from university. Mom didn’t work. That had become possible,’ he said.

‘My mom and dad were born in 1970,’ said Anastasia. ‘And nobody called them “oversized kids”. They grew up fast, but not like other generations. They loved taking risks and having adventure, but nobody said they were immature.’

Thus, starting with the generations born in the late Soviet period, growing up has become a dot-and-dash, ‘pulsating’ process, and young people often consider adulthood ‘more as something unavoidable than as something they desire or long for.’

Maturing Millennials

Nadezhda Nartova, Senior Research Fellow at the HSE Centre for Youth Studies in Saint Petersburg, and Alexander Fatekhov, HSE master’s graduate, studied the transition into adulthood for Russian millennials born between 1980 and 2000 who grew up during a period of political and economic stabilisation.

This group is not homogenous: the oldest are over 40, have reached maturity and the youngest are 20, and still in their formative years. For this reason, the sample group is divided into three cohorts: 20-year-olds (younger), 30 (mid-range) and 40 (older). The control group, in comparison to which it is possible to gauge the maturation of today’s youth, was a cohort of ‘adults’ — the generation that preceded the millennials whose members are from 43 to 60 years of age.

In terms of lifestyle and values, millennials differ markedly from other generations. They are compared, somewhat pejoratively, to Peter Pan and other characters who do not want to grow up.

The work of Nadezhda Nartova and Alexander Fatekhov uses data from the Russian national Courier representative survey for 2018-2019 (conducted by the Analytical Centre of Yury Levada, Russian legal entity performing the functions of a foreign agent), as well as the study ‘Russian Generation Z: Attitudes and Values’, conducted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation on a sample group of more than 1,040 people.

It turned out that for today’s Russian youth, the transition to adulthood begins with receiving an education and entering the labour market, and is accompanied by greater responsibility. But in the process, the subjective feeling of well-being declines, their mood worsens and they become less optimistic.

University — Diploma — Market

Let us first consider the socio-demographic picture. One marker of maturation is the completion of education. An overwhelming majority (98.3%) of Russians aged 18-29 surveyed have graduated from one or more educational institutions — school, college or university. Of those, secondary vocational education is the most common. Forty-year-olds represent the largest share of respondents (42.8%) with this level of education, while 20-year-olds represent the smallest share (33%).

The younger generations are most interested in obtaining a university degree. Of the young people aged 18-29 surveyed for the Russia’s Generation Z: Attitudes and Values study, 62% stated that they wanted to receive higher education by earning a bachelor’s, specialty or master’s degree.

However, the share of people with higher education is greatest among 30-year-olds, 39.3% of whom hold such degrees, compared to 26.5% among the control group. As a whole, this middle group studied longer than the others — a total of 13.7 years when taking into account all educational institutions. In other words, today’s youth study longer and receive a higher level of education than did the older generations.

The next stage is entering the labour market. Ninety percent of those who did so, accomplished it by the age of 22. At the same time, 27% of respondents aged 18-29 note that they have yet to work a full-time job. Apparently, many combine their studies with part-time work.

The majority of the young respondents in the middle and senior cohorts are specialists or hold working-class jobs. Because childbearing is most common between 25 and 35, 30-year-olds were more likely to list caring for a child as their main occupation (13.2%) than were other cohorts.

Independent Lifestyle, Postponing Children

Ninety percent of those who moved out of their parents’ home did so one year after they began working their first full-time job — that is, at the age of 24. Some also moved out at the age of 17, but this was most likely the result of ‘educational migration’ (entering college or university in another city and living in a dormitory).

However, a significant 44.5% of young people aged 18-29 had not yet left their parents’ home and, so, had not experienced this milestone of maturity.

In addition, 90% of those who moved in with a partner (47.4% of the sample group aged 18 or older) did so by the age of 24. Among those who decided to marry, the lion’s share also did so by the time they turned 24. At the same time, 52.6% of respondents aged 18-29 live without a partner.

Of the young people surveyed, only 28% had their first child by the age of 29, but 90% of those did so by the age of 25.

Regarding respondents for whom this or that event did not occur, the following can be said:

 More women than men (59.4% vs 40.6%) did not enter the labour market.

 The median age of those who have not begun working full-time is 19, but only 20% of those over 21 have not yet taken this step. Most respondents in this category have a secondary education. In addition, more people in this group than in the sample as a whole did not move out of their parents’ home, get married or have children. It is probably not yet possible for those young people who are still studying and have not yet entered the labour market to achieve other milestones of maturity.

 An equal number of men and women have not moved out from their parents’ home and their median age is 22. More than half of these respondents received more than a high school education (19% are specialists or hold a bachelor’s degree, 3.3% have a master’s or higher degree and 29.9% are graduates of colleges or technical schools. Of these, 58.5% began working full-time. Still, 47.2% said they could easily afford everyday consumer goods, but found it difficult to pay for durable goods. Thus, financial considerations might prompt young people to continue living with their parents, or else the arrangement is simply more comfortable and familiar for them.

 There is also gender parity among respondents who have not yet married, and their median age is also 22. Marriage is probably just not a priority for them yet.

Thus, most young people experience only part of the maturation process by the age of 29 — primarily getting an education and entering the labour market — while the rest of the milestones are optional. Only about one-half of respondents leave home and begin living with a partner, and starting a family and having children is postponed.

A Sense of Responsibility

One subjective marker of adulthood is taking responsibility for others. More than three-fourths of the respondents in the middle and older groups (75.4% and 79.8% respectively) feel responsible for what is happening in their family. Only one-half of those in the younger cohort share this feeling.

Fewer respondents feel responsible for what happens at work — approximately 33% of the middle and older groups and 18% of the younger group.

Just one-third of respondents express any sense of responsibility for what happens in their apartment complex and neighbourhood, and that only ‘to an insignificant extent’. However, this feeling increases with age. The greatest differences are observed between the younger and control age cohorts. In the latter, twice as many feel fully responsible for what happens at their place of residence as in the younger group (31.8% vs 16.8% respectively).

Respondents feel even less of a sense of responsibility for what happens in their city and district. Only 40% feel any responsibility at all, and those only ‘to a small extent’. And only about one-third of each cohort feel any responsibility for the country as a whole — also only ‘to a small extent’. Another 36%-38% feel no responsibility at all for their country, with no significant differences between age groups.

Young people feel greater responsibility for events in the family and at work as they pass through stages of the maturation process. Twenty-year-olds, who often live with their parents — whom they entrust with many decisions — feel the least sense of responsibility. What’s more, this generation has not yet fully entered the labour market: some do not work at all, and some hold less responsible, entry-level positions.

However, young people become more serious as they get older and gain experience in the family and at work. In this respect, the cohorts of 30- and 40-year-olds are similar to the control group. The sense of responsibility to their apartment complex and neighbourhood grows throughout life. At the same time, both younger and older Russians noticeably distance themselves from what they cannot control directly.

(Not So) Distant Plans

Adulthood brings with it greater self-awareness and confidence as social competencies increase. People plan for the future in connection with awareness of their resources and opportunities for action.

When asked how long they plan into the future, the most common response among Russian millennials (42%) was 1-2 years, and this was true across all age groups.

At the same time, the younger and middle groups say more often than the older group that they can plan their future five years ahead. The control group, meanwhile, has no idea what will happen to them even in the coming months.

When asked how they would be living one year from now, the most common answer among young people and adults (46%-49%) was that nothing would change, whereas the younger cohort was more likely to answer that their lives would be either ‘somewhat better’ or ‘much better’. For example, 8.7% of young people hope to live ‘much better’, as compared to 4%-5% of 30- and 40-year-olds.

The expectation of the youngest group that life would improve and the lack of such hopes among older groups can be seen as the effects of age. ‘Ten years ago, the same age groups showed a similar distribution of responses for this indicator,’ the researchers explained. People who belonged to the younger age group at that time now fall into the middle group, and the middle group in 2010 is now the older group. And we see that their attitudes have shifted towards pessimism’.

Stagnation and Dejection

The survey data show that respondents feel less satisfied with life as they get older. A similar trend was observed in 2011. ‘In other words, it’s not that one of the cohorts is more satisfied with life than the others, but that the older Russians become, the less satisfied they are with their lives,’ commented Nadezhda Nartova and Alexander Fatekhov. ‘In Russia, becoming an adult is associated with a narrowing planning horizon, a decline in the expectation of positive life changes, greater dissatisfaction and a negative outlook.’

The transition into adulthood for Russian millennials is accompanied by a loss of optimism. This begs the question: is it worth striving for adulthood? Judging by the attitudes of 40-year-olds, it is more a time of stagnation and dejection than of gaining greater self-confidence. Perhaps the time has come for researchers to shift their focus from youth to adulthood. Conducting such qualitative and quantitative research ‘would help to gauge the diversity of the ways in which people reach adulthood and the meaning they hold for contemporaries passing through this period of life,’ the researchers concluded.

Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, October 29, 2021