Emerging Adulthood


A few weeks ago, The New York Times Magazine ran a feature about those wacky 20-somethings and why they choose to be who they are. The piece by Robin Marantz Henig (which could be found starting here) is quite expansive, filled with numbers, percentage points, sociological studies, and the appropriate amount of hand-wringing over the question, “how did this come to be?” It is a wonderful piece; well-written, thoughtful, clearly researched, and presented in a very even-handed manner. But for all of its attention to what, exactly, is going on, there is very little presented in the tangible “why?”

The work of Jeffrey Jensen Arnett on his new stage of maturation, “emerging adulthood,” is quite interesting. Unfortunately, it’s also bullshit, as you learn towards the end of the piece (aka the point after most of my 20-something compatriots stopped reading). It is not necessary to pass through this post-college anomie to mature into a full-fledged, mortgage-paying adult. Point of fact, I have friends who skipped college and moved right into well-paying jobs without nary a thought to such angst. But these people are clearly the minority. What we have stumbled upon is a collection of events both reactionary as well as logical that lead us to our current “predicament.”

In order to get in the right mood, let’s go back a ways, specifically to the 1960s, and the way our parents were brought up. There was not much expected of you then: get a job, go to college (only if you want a better job), find a wife, have children, fear God, pay taxes, die. It was a lot easier for women simply because they were only expected to marry well, keep a nice house, and birth and change as many babies as possible. One can gather from stories your parents tell of their upbringing and the faux-rearing of Sally Draper on AMC’s Mad Men that parenting was strict and more towards the “negative” world view. “One should expect little except the worst and that they should be grateful for that” was beaten into the DNA of that generation (be it physically or otherwise). The immediate reaction to that was super liberation, the Summer of Love, more drugs than Pfizer pushes, and a horrible come-down off of this rush called “the mid-to-late ’70s.”

In direct opposition to the way that they were brought up, the parents of the current crop of twenty-somethings bent over backward for their children. A housewife was no longer a role, but a position one worked at and was proud of, with their child’s report card as their payment. A child was told to do anything, be anything, and was generally offered a privileged shot at life that their parents never had. Each child was told they were special, they were unique, they were God’s gift. If they studied hard, kept their noses clean, and graduated from college, everything would work out perfectly.

This way of parenting has a few setbacks, but chief among them is what it has done to our self-esteem…or gross amounts there of. Our egos have been massaged since birth and it has not lessened since. We were catered to by our parents, our teachers, television networks, ad campaigns. Our importance was paramount; we were the “Y” generation who constantly strove for information while the good-for-nothing “X” generation were being shiftless layabouts (remember those days?). We would revolutionize the way everything works and we would take advantage of a boundless future. Only we are horribly ill-equipped to deal with the real world of the present.

To begin with, our schooling has left with us nothing to hang on to expect a very expensive piece of paper. We have been conditioned for upwards of 20 actual years to a certain pattern of education, basing all of our skills on getting through school (be it from first grade to first semester). Our marketable traits would be filled with “three hour paper writing expert,” “excellent at finding vocabulary homework answers online,” and “cramming against a deadline.” These skills serve only those who go to graduate school and/or move on to get their doctorates; there are few practical advantages. We were told to excel in school, but some of us have only gleaned how to do just that. Sure, I understand Plato’s idea of The Good and how it relates to our common ideas of God, but how is that going to get me $40K a year?

The main thrust of the article deals with how recent grads are moving out later and later with no mention that the cost of living is outrageous. We become more urbanized by the day, and this trend does not look to stop anytime soon. So we send kids strapped with laptops and aspirations to The Big City looking for opportunity and instead only get faced with the realities of rent, electric, gas, internet, cellphone, health insurance (if lucky), car payments, car insurance…the list goes on and on. Couple these astronomic costs that go up by the day with a devastating economic climate that pits trained, experienced professionals against unwashed barely-legals and the outcome should not be too surprising. It’s hard to make money, and it’s harder to have enough of it to sustain oneself fully. And there are few moments less debilitating than moving back in with your family, putting your tail between your legs, running back to mommy’s apron and for protection from the cruel world which we had since been insulated from.

We also have the capacity to learn from our parents in the most direct and negative ways. For all of our advances, job security is not among them. The idea of staying at one job–let alone one company–for more than ten years seems archaic. We have a whole generation of men and women who were told, “put your head down, work hard, and you’ll end up okay” who are now feeding off of Unemployment checks, with no real hope on the horizon. People with 30+ years experience are sitting on the sideline because they are “too qualified,” counting the days until they can touch their 401Ks (if their companies didn’t, y’know, steal all the money from there and throw it into the ether). How are we expected to blindly put our faith into the same system that has bankrupted and broken our parents. And why, exactly, is this a bad thing?

Finally, we reach demoralization. It is sad–and honestly, a bit ridiculous–to think of how much our feelings are involved in all of this. Our generation is quite open with our feelings and put a premium on how we relay our emotions to the world. “Don’t hold your anger in,” “tell Mommy what’s wrong,” and god knows how many therapy sessions have made us dependent on someone being there to help us, guide us through our myriad issues. When you’re coddled from day one, how do you think day five thousand is going to be? That we’ll suddenly go out the door and start working in the mineshaft with a smile and a wave?

We are a generation caught in between. Desperately we want to succeed in what we want to do, and we seem pretty set on making a career in that specific field. As we move forward, we gain emerging platforms to do just that. You make jewelry? Go to Etsy. Film maker? Make a viral and throw it on YouTube and maybe you’ll get financing to make a movie that could be accessed by Netflix OnDemand. Into music? Open Garage Band, mix some beats, put them on iTunes. Computer programmer who loves video games? Sell something for the iPad for 99 cents and make 990K in a few months time. But that is not a viable platform for everyone, at least not to sustain like a regular 9-to-5, and there aren’t enough spots on the life rafts to navigate through the icy waters of monster.com and craigslist and come up with a career as a fall back. More and more people are college educated, and there are fewer and fewer jobs to accommodate these people, so we’re stuck for the moment.

But really, isn’t that a good thing? The last time this process occurred (as referenced up above), it was those lazy Gen-Xers who never get off their behinds and do something. Those same people have fully formed the information revolution, started Twitter (which is good, right?), have created numerous “green” jobs and companies, and have started to throw their weight around in politics. These were the same hopeless people who once would never lave the house or stop listening to that damn Ner-van-na band. Every generation that goes through change–and helps push it–will have little resembling the previous one.

So, parents, once we figure out how to bridge the gap between what we want and how to make money off of it, we’ll be out of your hair. Until then, could you pick me up some Mac n Cheese at the grocery? Thanks, dad.


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