A week ago, the New York Times (that paper I love to hate) ran a rather interesting 10-pager entitled “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” The author, Robin Marantz Henig draws on a few examples from real life and pop culture–young people trying to make a living from blogging, haha, remaining “untethered to permanent homes”–to set up a premise that twentysomethings are taking too long to “reach adulthood,” then asserts the claim that this is signaling the dawning of a new life stage: “emerging adulthood.”
The piece indeed has some fascinating insights from the social science community, but problematically, the entire concept is based on the traditional definition of “adulthood” as marked by five milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child.
I think this is a premise worthy of some deep analysis. Let’s dig in, shall we?
The first three elements of adulthood, according to the article, are pretty reasonable: 1) Finish school – (pretty universal), 2) Leave home (again, fairly universal, at least in the US), and, 3) Become financially independent (even if you don’t skip the first too, #3 is pretty much expected).
But 4 and 5–get married and have children? Let’s think about this. Forty, hell, even twenty years ago, women choosing not to get married or have babies (or to not get married and have babies, or to get married and not have babies) were stigmatized. Still are, in many places. I’m not going to make judgments on how best to raise a child, but whatever the answer to that is, we should still be thrilled about having so many options. Women work, and their husbands stay home with the kids. Women have kids with long-term non-married partners. Women choose the “traditional” route and do the whole marriage-kids-picket fence thing. The best part? It’s their choice.
So this takes us back to milestones one through three. In my world, there’s no excuse for not finishing high school, but college isn’t for everyone. Nevertheless, enrollment numbers seem to be on the rise, so I wouldn’t say kids are particularly struggling with that facet of life.
But what about leaving home? Lots of articles lately, in the Times and elsewhere, focus on this whole “failure to launch” issue: kids finish college and move back in, or never leave in the first place. Leaving home, in my opinion, isn’t a necessity, and it is absolutely cultural. In many other places, and in cultures here at home, kids finish school and go to work, all the while living with family. It’s a pretty Anglocentric thing to assume kids should leave the house at 18.
So what’s left? Financial independence. What’s stopping twentysomethings? Two things, only one of which is their fault. The first, of course, is the obvious: the economy. With so many unemployed and underemployed older adults, teens are getting the shaft on traditionally teenage jobs, which means they have little to no work experience when they finish school.
The second thing, of course, is unrealistic expectations, which is really the only thing in this entire article that is completely true and unique to this generation. These young’uns are growing up with the expectation that they can be whatever they want–regardless of skill, talent, or education. Part of that, in my opinion, is absolutely lovely…I have an amazing career I couldn’t have dreamed about on only a BA degree, and yet, here I am (I am, however, working on my MA). I totally dreamed myself here. But at the same time, ain’t gonna happen for everyone, and parents need to stop handing out awards, patting their kids on the back for a job poorly done, etc., and start preparing their kids for the reality outside.
So in the end, I find the whole premise of achieving milestones to reach adulthood terribly problematic. And I know that I will never reach some of them myself. I don’t want to own a home; I believe (like Walt Disney did) that renting is a better choice. I want to live in a city, with my significant other (whether or not we decide to get married), and have a cat. I don’t want children (never have). I might go out three nights a week a la Carrie Bradshaw.
I also think this Anglocentric concept of adulthood can’t be applied to everyone (heh, Anglos included). Don’t get me wrong…I’m all for independence. I don’t think “helicopter parents” are doing anyone any favors, and I think independence–particularly financial independence–at a young age can only set one up for success. But at the same time, there is nothing wrong with being close to one’s family. A young person can still live with parents, work a full-time job, and be independent.
There’s something to be said for finding one’s own way in the world, but that means each one choosing what’s right for him or herself. And what’s “right” comes in many packages.
(If you have an opinion on this, the awesome Jessie Rosen is collecting them)