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The Big Life Challenges Facing the 20-Something Generation

People in their 20s are taking longer to start careers and get married. What's going on?

People in their 20s are taking a perplexingly long time to grow up these days -- at least that's the story we're hearing in the media. According to this narrative, young people are stuck in a phase of arrested development, moving in with their parents more often and committing to jobs and marriages later. Most recently, the notion that young people refuse to grow up is the premise for a widely discussed New York Times magazine cover story, “What Is It About 20-Somethings?”

The title alone is enough to put a 20-something-year-old on the defensive. In the piece, "growing up" is defined by five goals: finishing school, leaving home, financial independence, getting married and having kids. Apparently, we're taking much longer than the previous generation to fulfill these goals, and therefore are failing to enter true adulthood.

While author Robin Marantz Henig concedes in the piece that these milestones can be fulfilled out of order and some never fulfilled at all, she nevertheless insists that 20-somethings are taking too long to grow up. We are “slouching toward adulthood at an uneven pace,” she claims, and this seems to be cause for concern.

The article explores a theory put forth by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a psychology professor who believes that those of us in our 20s are forming a new stage of life. He chooses the term “Emerging Adulthood” for the fickle time between student life and independent adulthood. It’s a unique stage, according to Arnett, that requires careful examination. For 10 years, he has been advocating for Emerging Adulthood to be recognized as an official developmental stage.

Henig explains this would necessitate new social accommodations; attitude shifts and programs to prevent what might otherwise devolve into years of aimless meandering. Proposed solutions include expanding post-graduate options like the Peace Corps or City Year. (Although a year or two of service work may leave one rich in experience, the meager education award of under $6,000 is barely enough to pay for one semester of college. This doesn’t seem like an optimal step toward financial freedom in our 20s.)

The classification of these years as a stage suggests we are less evolved on an emotional level, and maybe even in our mental abilities, than those who are older or went through this time in prior generations. Even if that's true, doesn’t everyone progress emotionally over time? If, instead, we see the odd behavior young people exhibit as the result of economic, cultural and social changes we may have a better shot at some pragmatic solutions.

The idea that we are committing at a later age than our parents sounds right and is supported by numbers, but doesn’t address the fact that this trend is less a shortcoming than the result of catalysts that may be beyond our control. From 1960 to 2000, the percentage of women who fulfilled all five adulthood goals dropped from 77 percent to less than half and men from 65 percent to a third. Arguably there is some wisdom in postponing marriage and children. If we aren’t paying our own bills the chance of paying our children’s bills is out of the question.

Taking time to thoughtfully enter into a life partnership and bring new life into the world doesn’t seem to deserve an indictment of immaturity. Many of us observed how our parents married young and either divorced or told us they wished they'd had more time to be young. In a way they probably encouraged us to take our time about choices they made when they were our age.

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