The average student debt load for young adults is about $37,000, according to the study.

Today’s young adults are having a much harder time achieving financial independence than young adults in previous generations, according to a study by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave.

The study, the last of a series examining distinct life stages, surveyed a national sample of more than 2,700 young Americans, age 18 to 34, about the financial challenges they face, and the results are somewhat disturbing.

Although today’s young adults are better educated and more diverse with access to the latest technology and more freedom to determine their future, eight in ten respondents said they are having a more difficult time becoming financially independent than their parents and earlier  generations, and 70% of their parents agree.

Financial Support From Parents

That’s not surprising since 70% of young adults — they’re referred to as “early adults” in the study — reported receiving financial support from their parents in the last year, to pay for such expenses as cell phone bills, rent or mortgages and student loans. Fifty-eight percent said they could not afford their current lifestyles if not for their parents’ support.

Parents are spending $500 billion on their early adult children, an “enormous amount,” according to the study. Most of the assistance consists of regular or occasional payments to help with everyday expenses; only one-quarter is for educational expenses. Roughly 25% of young adults live in their parents’ home for a time.

“Financial support [from the family bank] beyond age 25 has become the norm,” according to the study.

Probably as a result of that support, 75% of study respondents defined adulthood as achieving financial independence from their parents.

The Growing Debt Burden

Crushing student debt — averaging close to $37,000 for young adults, according to the study — is a major reason young adults are having such a difficult time becoming financially independent. They will be paying on average $371 a month for 10 years to service that debt.

They are experiencing a “challenging conundrum,” says Ken Dychtwald, CEO of Age Wave. “The only way to make a good salary and support a family is to go to college, but the costs of college pose a serious challenge.” 

Thirty-six percent of college graduates currently paying off student loans said the debt wasn’t worth it, according to the Merrill/Age Wave study.

“Student debt is having a major ripple effects on early adults’ futures, financially and personally,” according to the report. “Four hundred thousand early adults who would have purchased a home a decade ago have not been able to afford due to student debt, and today’s early adults take finances into greater consideration in deciding whether and when to have a child than those in past generations.”

They’re also short-changing their retirement savings. Young adults with student debt contribute about 50% less to their 401(k) plans than those without student debt. About one-quarter of young adults reported making early withdrawals from their 401(k) plans, most often to pay off credit card debt, which averages $3,700 for those with credit card balances.

Not surprisingly,  60% of young adults defined financial success as being debt-free, according to the study.

Job Dissatisfaction

A good-paying job is key to to achieving financial independence, but many young adults are dissatisfied with their current job. Close to half of the study’s respondents said they plan to look for a new job in the next 12 months, and 69% said the primary reason was to earn more money.

Many respondents reported dissatisfaction with their job not only because of inadequate pay (41%) but also because of limited career potential (44%) or misalignment with their passions or interests (35%).

The Differences Between Men and Women

In addition to findings that generalized the experience of young adults, the study found sharp differences between the trajectories for young men and young women. Fewer male millennials have a bachelor’s degree — 31% vs. 42% for female millennials — and many more men 30 and over continue to receive parental support: 62% versus 49% for women of the same age.

The study concludes that “each generation experiences the life stage [for early adulthood] differently, and today’s early adults are taking longer to complete it.”