Emerging from youth into adulthood

Last week, a friend sent me an email with a subject line which said “What do you think of this?” Inside was the link to a New York Times article which details the “problem” of the adult child in society today and one psychology professor’s quest to term the 20’s as a specific life stage called “emerging adulthood.”

What is it about 20-somethings? becomes a polemic lamenting the belated attainment of adulthood by America’s young adults by lamely attempting to uphold the traditional “5 milestone” index as the absolute indication of maturity. The five milestones that lead to adulthood according to this definition are: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child.

If we adhere to the antiquated definition of adulthood which the writer wants us to, then the fact that it’s taking longer to get there is definitely true, and there are many explanations:

1) The “village to raise a child” mentality: when it takes a village (or society) to raise a child, that child is going to be dependent upon it much longer than a parent who eventually grows weary of financially supporting their adult-aged child.

2) Baby boomers are doing a really good job of being supportive of their children in compensation for some of the support they missed as children. So much so, that their children have actually found it more beneficial to live off mom and dad indefinitely, and since “everybody is doing it,” no one feels ashamed about it.

3) Conflicting information: every day a new study is published about why its good to cut the purse strings. And every day another study is published about why adult children need support in this tough financial climate. Well, if children don’t really know what they are supposed to do, how are they to be expected to grow up?

4) The baby boomer generation is so large that it’s effectively holding jobs which would normally have gone to the next generation because they are still in their prime and not at retiring age.

5) There are no new jobs being created and the government is doing all it can to ensure that people are entirely dependent upon their “generosity.”  Plus, now more than ever, smart people are deciding that it’s better to wait to have families until they are financially stable, which is happening ever later because there are no jobs!

6) The definition of adulthood hardly applies to what adulthood should be considered as at this stage in history. Adulthood is a maturity level, not a milestone. It can be agreed that many 20-somethings haven’t met a required maturity level yet, but as one that has, I resent being told that I’m not an adult because I’ve been forced to move home with my parents after finishing my degree. Most adult children don’t want to do this (although there are some that do…) so it’s hardly fair to hold it against adult children if such a situation is an economic strongarm and not a voluntary choice. That doesn’t indicate an absence of maturity.

7) (and my favorite) EVERYONE and their brother is going to college now! College effectively puts off starting ‘adulthood’ by 4, and increasingly 5 or more, years. It used to be that a small percentage of the populace did this, the rest finished (high) school, started their jobs, married and had children, up to 5 years earlier than young adults are now.  Now, since everyone is pushing off the ‘launch’ by 5 years, it appears as if it is taking longer for children to reach adulthood, when really this has been the same situation for people getting a degree from the beginning of university education.

However, if the “milestone” standard can’t be counted upon, perhaps “emerging adulthood,” as a phase, explains away the challenges facing today’s young adults. The author of the article, Robin Marantz Henig, draws similarities between Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s theory on this new life phase and the discovery of “adolescence” at the turn of the 20th century, citing cultural changes as the reason for this phase to be exhibited at this point in time. These cultural changes include a perceived need for more education to get a good paying job, fewer entry-level positions even after getting a bachelor’s degree, acceptance of premarital sex reducing a rush to enter into marriage, and greater career options coupled with better fertility treatments leading women to bear children later than ever.

The characteristics of emerging adulthood sound exactly the same as those of adolescence: identity exploration, instability, self-focus, a feeling of being “in-between,” but sprinkled with a sense of the possibilities that lie ahead. Henig reminds the reader how social institutions were forced to adapt education, health care, and laws to accommodate the  new idea of adolescence in the early 20th century, and suggests that we be prepared for the same to happen for young adults.

Is it entirely necessary for us to begin considering the ways in which we can “protect” young adults with more laws? My understanding is that many laws produced with a specific (and often arbitrary) target age only compound the problems that already exist. Isn’t it awful that a child of 8 might be expected to work in a factory at the turn of the century? Child labor laws to the rescue! But now, how do farmers that depend on the labor of their children manage? Well, lets write a new law! Come to think of it, why exactly does the IRS consider me a dependent of my parents until I reach the age of 25 when it comes to FAFSA, but for my taxes, if it serves their purposes, it’s perfectly acceptable for me to claim myself independent since I pay my own tuition, rent, utilities, credit cards, car bills, etc.? And why are car rental companies allowed to discriminate against me before I wreck their vehicles, simply because I’m under that magical age of 25? I have 8 years of driving experience, own my own car, and have never caused a collision myself. Why should my record not speak for itself?

The argument is that companies (and our government) cannot “afford” to review each case on an individual basis. If this is indeed the case, how does the government decide who in the emerging adulthood phase needs protection or correction, since not everyone exhibits the signs of the phase to begin with? In the last quarter of the 20th century, and especially in the last decade, the hazards of overprotection and too much support have been exemplified by the so-called “helicopter parents” that won’t let their children break an arm, lest they should ever feel pain, or know the sting of defeat. Society has gone so far as to stop keeping score of children’s baseball games in the name of ensuring self-esteem for all participants regardless of talent, ability, or plain hard work.

This brings me back to the young 20-something that Arnett refers to as the classic “Generation X Slacker.” The theory of the emerging adult life phase, as it is postulated, states that at this time in life, one is more self-focused (read: self-centered) than at any other point in their lives. Take that Carl Jung: we don’t develop Superegos until 30 in the 21st century apparently. I’d love to see him telling a group of Peace Corps members, a single parent, or an athlete that they are too self-focused to be true adults. According to Arnett, the young adult of today wants, nay, needs to get by on minimum effort and state help.

Arnett also references a historical precedent which foreshadowed the arrival of a new life phase in the guise of the 60s. However, he claims that the rebelliousness and alienation which young adults of the free love decade are known for is an indication of the “unique moment” in history that has never been replicated before or since. While not being exactly sure what factors must exist to constitute such a “unique moment,” it’s hardly a stretch to imagine that 2010, with its Great Recession, overabundance of overeducated young people, and turbulent political climate, might be considered one such moment. If the young adults of the 60s were able to somehow forge through into the groovy 70s without special consideration, is it really unfair to expect young adults of the TwentyTeens to take their experiences and learn from them without new laws and extra government “protection?”

Isn’t it sort of time to say enough protection; I’m an adult, let me live, so that I can learn?

Don’t tread on me. Or my 20-something friends. Only answer me this: are you hiring?


~ by aptessmann on September 3, 2010.

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