The Big Life Challenges Facing the 20-Something Generation

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.

Even excluding marriage and children from the equation for adulthood, the steps to the other goals have changed as well. Finishing school is costly, moving away from home is generally desired but sometimes near impossible. Financial security requires secure jobs. In 2008 the New York Times reported that the cost of college had increased at the absurd rate of 439 percent since 1982. The average debt of a new college graduate is $18,647 which could take over 25 years to pay off. Considering the ballooning costs of higher education, major debt, living expenses and shortage of jobs, settling down seems out of the question. How can we be expected to with little sense of security and certainty?

Surefire professional paths to success are harder to come by. Once thought of solid careers in journalism, advertising and banking are more precarious, competitive and less certain. Almost 20 percent of those aged 16 to 24 years old are unemployed, and there don't seem to be new jobs surfacing to keep up. There is actually a shortage of jobs. We’re not staring down the many options for stability and unable to choose, they simply don’t exist the way they did.

For emerging adults, time spent ostensibly unemployed, job hunting or underemployed is described in the piece as “timeout they are granted from nonstop, often tedious work and dispiriting responsibilities.” The word “timeout” sounds like a vacation until you consider it probably means no steady paycheck -- a security anyone needs to settle down into adulthood. Yes, identity exploration time is important but I’m sure many would prefer to pay their rent.

Parents may wonder if this stage is a good or bad thing. I assume that many are equally if not more concerned with if this is an affordable thing. Time spent away from consistent work generally means relying on some external form of support. That can be unemployment benefits for those who worked long enough. Those who haven’t often have to rely on parents in some way.

This points to the influence parents' finances have over what this time looks like for different people. Parents who may have encouraged individualism and youthful exploration may not have expected to be footing so much of the bill. Many have financial worries of their own. Creating a new stage will likely also promote longer terms of parental support.

Of course, this is less of a reality for emerging adults who come from less privileged backgrounds or those who have obligations to their families. Henig rightly points out that the delay time before full-blown adulthood can be a luxury. For some it's an impossibility: any 20-something who doesn’t have access to higher education or parental support may enter into the workforce right out of high school and skip the emerging phase entirely.

Even emerging adults who are not supported by their parents and have full-time jobs are often struggling to get by on meager salaries living in expensive cities. If someone lives with a roommate well into their 30s does this make them less of a settled adult? An AlterNet article from last year points out that “with the surge of women entering the workplace, the rising age of marriage and the shortage of affordable housing, the advent of the roommate has filled an essential niche, not just for those right out of school, but for urban professionals of all ages.” Roommates are a practical option for many in expensive urban areas, hinder in the pursuit of feeling settled. Those with roommates presumably will have to move again, whether out on their own or in with another roommate. This trend also doesn’t lend itself toward footing in official adulthood.

Many of the new challenges facing young adults are mentioned but not explored, and we are still criticized for being unwilling to accept dreary futures and dead-end jobs as our fates. The claim that youthful idealism is our biggest foe seems stale and unwarranted. Most young people don’t want to imagine dismal futures, and why should we? We are not capricious daydreamers waiting for adulthood to arrive and filching out any support we can in the meantime. Based on most I know the exact opposite is true. I’ve found that young adults -- or emerging adults -- are motivated, creative and thoughtful about their futures. Most 20-somethings I know are endlessly analyzing and exploring options, trying to make the best choices in a time when nobody really seems to know what those are.

Volunteer programs and rehabilitation may work for some but assistance along the lines of education opportunities, financial aid and job training might better serve a broader population. The issues we face are significant and some understanding in the form of practical support would be welcome.

The author answers her opening question of why 20-somethings are taking so long to grow up with this understatement: “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.” We are looking for jobs. We don’t opt into transient lifestyles, moving back home with parents, changing jobs and waiting longer before getting married and having kids. Mostly this is a result of social, cultural and economic forces that were put in motion long before we had power. The question this raises is do these factors signify adulthood even when they’re no longer as accessible as they once might have been?

With little assurance or clear guidance toward pathways to success, our insecurities and hesitations are valid. We’re not resisting or shirking adulthood; we are looking at it and discovering it’s not exactly as it was once described. Rather than relegating us to back the ranks of those who are just too young or immature to make sensible decisions, we might be better served by meaningful discussion and more input on possible solutions and pathways to our own style of adulthood.

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