“Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?”
So begins the 8,000-word novella on today’s New York Times magazine cover. Why indeed? This question is over rather paramount importance to me — a 22-year-old liberal arts college graduate, unemployed, living with my parents and looking for a job in a collapsing industry (finance — just kidding! I mean an actually collapsing industry: journalism). There’s already been a good deal of indignation in the blogosphere, likely penned in large part by such un-grown-up twentysomethings.
The problem lies in a deviation from the “traditional” growing-up schedule: school, career, family, retire. Mmm… a lifetime of monumental decisions boiled down to a handy four-step guide. But now, “young people remain untethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary (and often grueling) Teach for America jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life.”
Author Robin Marantz Henig drops some statistics:
- One-third of twentysomethings move to new residences once per year.
- 40 percent move home at least once.
- Twentysomethings go through an average 7 jobs.
- Two-thirds live with a romantic partner without being married.
- The median age at first marriage is 26 for women and 28 for men — in contrast with 21 for women and 23 for men in the early 1970s.
Like the life cycle, the “transition to adulthood” has five easy steps: complete school, leave home, achieve financial independence, marry, have children. Today’s twentysomethings, however, have shot that schedule to hell.
They slouch toward adulthood at an uneven, highly individual pace. Some never achieve all five milestones, including those who are single or childless by choice, or unable to marry even if they wanted to because they’re gay. Others reach the milestones completely out of order, advancing professionally before committing to a monogamous relationship, having children young and marrying later, leaving school to go to work and returning to school long after becoming financially secure.
A Clark University psychologist, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, the hero of the piece, attributes the shift to a variety of cultural and economic factors:
[T]he need for more education to survive in an information-based economy; fewer entry-level jobs even after all that schooling; young people feeling less rush to marry because of the general acceptance of premarital sex, cohabitation and birth control; and young women feeling less rush to have babies given their wide range of career options and their access to assisted reproductive technology if they delay pregnancy beyond their most fertile years.
After mucking about in some cognitive and developmental psychology, Marantz Henig makes some sweeping cultural generalizations in an attempt to characterize an age group, largely boiling down to a claim that young people now postpone marriage, family and a career almost a decade past what it used to be. Those expectations mean that those twentysomethings faced with the option to marry or start their careers “haven’t braced themselves for it.”
It’s true many twentysomethings — myself included — have a more delayed personal life plan. I’d like to start my career as soon as possible, but marriage and family are mind-bogglingly far off for me, if it all. Alternatively, I know or know of plenty of people my age already married or engaged defying Marantz Henig’s conceit.
The article shares plenty of anecdotes about the rich finding a twentysomething malaise. The most perplexing and irritating is Yellowbrick, an Evanston, Ill. halfway home for twentysomethings that costs $21,000 per month. The irony is apparently not lost on Yellowbrick, where they refer to parents paying insane sums to force their children to grow up “connected autonomy, which they define as knowing when to stand alone and when to ask for help.”
I dare you to read this without your jaw dropping.
The demands of imminent independence can worsen mental-health problems or can create new ones for people who have managed up to that point to perform all the expected roles — son or daughter, boyfriend or girlfriend, student, teammate, friend — but get lost when schooling ends and expected roles disappear. That’s what happened to one patient who had done well at a top Ivy League college until the last class of the last semester of his last year, when he finished his final paper and could not bring himself to turn it in.
The Yellowbrick philosophy is that young people must meet these challenges without coddling or rescue. Up to 16 patients at a time are housed in the Yellowbrick residence, a four-story apartment building Viner owns. They live in the apartments — which are large, sunny and lavishly furnished — in groups of three or four, with staff members always on hand to teach the basics of shopping, cooking, cleaning, scheduling, making commitments and showing up.
Wait, what? No coddling or rescue — but their enviable apartments are paid for and staff members teach them how to cook and clean and show up? They have to be taught punctuality? I must be missing something.
Then it gets better.
[One patient] started to fall apart during her junior year at college, plagued by binge drinking and anorexia, and in her first weeks at Yellowbrick her alcohol abuse continued. Most psychiatric facilities would have kicked her out after the first relapse, said Dale Monroe-Cook, Yellowbrick’s vice president of clinical operations. “We’re doing the opposite: we want the behavior to unfold, and we want to be there in that critical moment, to work with that behavior and help the emerging adult transition to greater independence.”
Okay, let me just look something up here…
res·cue [res-kyoo]: recovery or preservation from loss or danger
Yup, that’s rescue all right, no ifs, ands or buts.
Fortunately, Arnett’s research doesn’t just examine the privileged and middle classes — but his analysis diverges for the poor. One case study, of a girl forced to take over the household at age 6 (believable?) “after her mother’s mental collapse,” now supporting her mother and siblings working as a receptionist with dreams of earning a Ph.D. in psychology. Don’t let her alleged rags-to-riches story fool you, though; Marantz Henig certainly doesn’t.
Is it only a grim pessimist like me who sees how many roadblocks there will be on the way to achieving those dreams and who wonders what kind of freewheeling emerging adulthood she is supposed to be having?
The seeds of the fruit that makes up the juice of this article, however, is not what is happening or why, but whether it is good or bad — a question that, as you might guess, can be easily, clearly and decisively answered. Marantz Henig is, predictably, noncommittal.
There is time enough for adulthood and its attendant obligations; maybe if kids take longer to choose their mates and their careers, they’ll make fewer mistakes and live happier lives. But it’s just as easy to see the drawbacks. As the settling-down sputters along for the “emerging adults,” things can get precarious for the rest of us. Parents are helping pay bills they never counted on paying, and social institutions are missing out on young people contributing to productivity and growth. Of course, the recession complicates things, and even if every 20-something were ready to skip the “emerging” moratorium and act like a grown-up, there wouldn’t necessarily be jobs for them all. So we’re caught in a weird moment, unsure whether to allow young people to keep exploring and questioning or to cut them off and tell them just to find something, anything, to put food on the table and get on with their lives.
To sum up:
- Kids are taking longer to grow up.
- It’s probably the previous generation’s fault — psychologically, economically, culturally.
- Twentysomethings are immature and can’t do basic things like clean or go grocery shopping.
- Maybe it’s good, because it might result in better developed adults later in life?
- Probably not.