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Today's 21-year-olds, who were born in 1982 and are part of the leading edge of Generation Y, are among the most-studied group of young adults ever. But some big surprises still loom as this segment of newly minted adults makes “the big turn.�

A 21st birthday is a very big deal; after that day, one can legally purchase alcoholic beverages in any state and gamble away every last dollar in a casino. Although many things become legal at age 18, 21 is when the last vestige of being “underage� disappears, at least as far as the vice squad is concerned. Turning 21 signals the end of youth and the beginning of adult responsibilities, which can be a scary prospect. It is also the age at which many people graduate from college and begin looking for their first “real� job.

About 4 million Americans turn 21 each year, a figure that's not expected to change significantly in the next decade. But while the numbers might not change, the impact these new adults will have on the economy is likely to increase and their purchasing behavior is likely to change.

At 21, men have a slight numerical advantage: There are about 105 men for every 100 women. (That difference soon disappears: After age 30, there are more women than men at every age.) From age 18 to 21, there are 5 percent more men than women, but 20 percent more women are enrolled in college than men. On their 21st birthday, only about 1 in 4 men are in college full-time, compared with 1 in 3 women.

High-growth fields — such as health care, education and professional services — often require a college degree and employ mostly women. Low-growth and highly cyclical blue-collar industries — manufacturing, transportation, construction et al. — seldom require an education beyond high school and employ mostly men. These trends were mirrored in the June 2003 U.S. unemployment rate, which was 6.1 percent for adult men and 5.2 percent for adult women.

But people turning 21 have a lot of things on their minds besides finding a job, such as finding someone to live with or marry. Here again, women have the edge. According to the Census Bureau, 25 percent of women are married at the age of 21, versus 13 percent of men. By age 25, more than 50 percent of women have married or lived with someone; by age 30, a solid majority of both men and women have been married at least once.

Though marriage or cohabitation almost always involves romance, there may also be an economic component: The average earnings of employed 21-year-olds are usually insufficient to pay for a place to live. The mean wage of 21-year-old men, according to Census Bureau surveys, is $17,000 for high school graduates and $26,000 for college graduates. For women, the figures are $13,000 and $24,000 a year, respectively.

The median rent, plus utilities, of an urban apartment — where many young adults live — exceeds $10,000 a year, and college grads often have big student loan payments. Therefore, getting married — or at least living with someone — virtually becomes a necessity. (In any case, for most 21-year-olds, it surely beats living with Mom and Dad.)

Most young adults find out very quickly how easy it is to spend more than they make. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Expenditure Surveys, the average household in the 25-and-under category spends 116 percent of its after-tax income.

It may not sound like much, but spending 16 percent more than income represents an average of $267 a month for these newly formed households. If these young adults suddenly started living within their means (perish the thought), consumer spending would shrink by at least $30 billion a year, which would have drastic consequences for many industries.

Young adult households, for example, spend slightly more than half of their food budget outside their home, compared with 42 percent for all other households. Because most of the spending on food away from home is for lunch and snacks, this population segment is clearly very important to such companies as Starbucks and McDonald's.

Despite average incomes that are only half that of other households, young adults spend more than any other age group on beer and ale: 68 percent above the average for all households. But they don't seem to have cultivated a taste for wine, spending only about one-third of the all-household average.

As you might expect, young adults spend the most of any household age group on rent but the least on health care. Music, however, is central to their lives; they spend more than most other households on radios and sound equipment, particularly for their cars.

Another area where young adults spend more than average is in computers and related products. This should also not come as a surprise, because the vast majority of 21-year-olds have a computer and Internet access. And it suggests that Web sites and carefully targeted e-mail are likely to be among the most effective ways to reach this market segment. Some concert promoters, for instance, find the Web to be the most efficient way to get the word out to fans about certain bands.

In some ways, 21-year-olds have not changed from the 21-year-olds of 10 or 20 years ago. They are still trying to find an affordable place to live, still searching for a mate and in many cases still starting a family. Young adults still drink beer and go out to eat more often than they stay home. But they are more likely to have been to college, especially the women. And a very important difference is that they are far more computer savvy. They search the Web for things they want to buy or get information about, using it to find everything from a mate to a meal.

The biggest difference, however, is that many more women in this segment are economically independent. The mean earnings of young women college grads are now nearly equal to those of men. When these women marry, and the vast majority will by age 30, their families will have substantially higher incomes and spending power.

The number of 21-year-olds may not change in the next decade, but because of women's rising educational attainment and hence increased earning power, the economic impact of our 4 million 21-year-olds will likely be significantly greater.

Peter Francese is the founder of American Demographics. He can be reached at [email protected].

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