Friday, August 20, 2010

What's wrong with 20-somethings?

My onetime love-hate relationship with the New York Times has transformed into a purely “hate” relationship. I certainly will still peruse the day’s offerings, which is how I stumbled across the following gem. There is a lovely piece from the Sunday magazine entitled “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” Right away, we get the usual tripe about how irresponsible, directionless, and basement-dwelling this generation is, and how much this baffles their parents, who, as we know, never had any periods of wayward youth before they grew up and ruined the country.
It’s happening all over, in all sorts of families, not just young people moving back home but also young people taking longer to reach adulthood overall. It’s a development that predates the current economic doldrums, and no one knows yet what the impact will be — on the prospects of the young men and women; on the parents on whom so many of them depend; on society, built on the expectation of an orderly progression in which kids finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and eventually retire to live on pensions supported by the next crop of kids who finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and on and on. The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain un¬tethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary (and often grueling) Teach for America jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life.

This piece puts a new spin on those darn 20-somethings, because rather than simply blame it on laziness and Lady Gaga, some professor has come up with a new psychological explanation for why we just can’t get it together. I’ve never been one for psychobabble, but this theory is particularly dunderheaded. As the article notes, it seems that every generation or so, psychologists are “discovering” distinct new stages of development. It’s an amazing coincidence that these alternative explanations for why 20-somethings are screwed (hint: economy) turn up just at the time some prof needs a grand new theory on which to spend ten years “developing” while he’s getting tenure.

The idea that my young brain isn’t fully developed isn’t new. In fact, it’s probably true. This is by no means a reason why we can write off the problems my generation faces as merely “normal stages of development.” This is a sad attempt to punt away the crippling structural economic problems that have handicapped this generation. Sure, my brain isn’t fully developed. Any scientist worth his salt will tell you that the brain is constantly changing, forming new synapse pathways (or whatever they’re called) or strengthening/weakening others. I kill brain cells every weekend when I knock a few back. See, the brain is constantly changing.

This grand, important developmental stage of "emerging adulthood" didn’t seem to have hindered our ancestors. The “emerging adults” of the past built railroads, mined coal, and fought world wars. I don’t like to use specific historical examples, but if 20-somethings are really so cerebrally inept, no young person should ever have accomplished anything. Alexander the Great had conquered half of Asia by the time he was 25. Winston Churchill was a noted soldier, author, and elected MP by 25. Theodore Roosevelt was busting his ass in the New York legislature at 24. Examples like these are often dismissed as “extraordinary” but naysayers, but let’s be reasonable here. What were even your humble grandparents doing before age 25? If they’re anything like mine, they were working in a foundry before getting married, having kids, fighting in a war, coming home, and continuing this established family and career life, all before age 30. There was no extended period of lounging about college campuses, no few years spent in mom’s basement playing Xbox, no extra years in grad school riding out a bad economy. Even most of my hippie aunts and uncles had married and had kids by 25. Psychologically, they were probably a lot like we are. What’s the biggest difference? They lived in a time where an expanding economy that offered plenty of entry-level jobs that paid a living wage allowed them to pursue this kind of stable, middle-class life. There’s nothing the least bit psychological about the difference between us and them.

Outside of the world of the perpetually un/underemployed 20somethings, liberal arts majors, law school grads, humanities PhDs, laid-off engineers, and the like, there is a noted absence of this psychological phenomenon, a fact that the Times spends a whole paragraph, out of ten pages, discussing:
EVEN ARNETT ADMITS that not every young person goes through a period of “emerging adulthood.” It’s rare in the developing world, he says, where people have to grow up fast, and it’s often skipped in the industrialized world by the people who marry early, by teenage mothers forced to grow up, by young men or women who go straight from high school to whatever job is available without a chance to dabble until they find the perfect fit. Indeed, the majority of humankind would seem to not go through it at all. The fact that emerging adulthood is not universal is one of the strongest arguments against Arnett’s claim that it is a new developmental stage. If emerging adulthood is so important, why is it even possible to skip it?

It’s not important, because it doesn’t exist. There’s nothing psychological about our situation, other than the long term effects of feeling helpless and depressed due to your inability to provide for yourself. You can also throw in a hefty dose of anger at those who have scammed us, bundled and outsourced jobs we might have taken, crashed the economy, and encouraged us to saddle up with crippling student debt that has not proven to be the ticket to employment we were promised it would be.

The reason millions and millions of 20somethings are adrift at sea isn’t because they’re discovered some new developmental niche called “emerging adulthood.” It’s because it has become so hard economically to get a grip on that cherished middle-class earning power and work stability that previous generations enjoyed. At the same time, we’ve taught 20-somethings a disdain for entry-level work that might require a little elbow grease, by telling everyone they could immediately pass go, collect $200, and become doctors and lawyers. We’ve crushed the entrepreneurial spirit of this generation by conditioning everyone to expect a cushy, white-collar job. We’ve destroyed the desire of millions of people to pair off and start families by telling them that it’s overrated and that perpetual bachelordom and avoiding committed relationships is the way to go. We haven’t instilled people with the life script that might ensure their own individual futures in old age, and our collective well-being by creating a new generation of workers, taxpayers, and the like. The root cause of the “problems” faced by 20somethings is totally economic, and is a result of their parents’—the Boomers—own incompetent failings.

This condition isn’t something to celebrate, and it isn’t a chance to bask in the glory of “redefining adulthood.” Yes, bumming around college campuses, stinking your way unwashedly through European hostels, and gaining Level 10 Prestige in Call of Duty can be “fun” for many young people. At the risk of being the old (young) curmudgeon here, none of those things are going to “fix” America, and they are not going to establish the kind of robust, hardscrabble generation that would have a fighting chance in this brave new, post-recession, post-outsourcing, post-weak dollar world. Some 20somethings will relish the “freedom” of living at home and having no responsibilities. However, having responsibilities and being a cog in a collective of responsible, boring, and rather dull middle-class adults is a part of living in society and making sure it doesn’t collapse. Your grandparents were cogs. Your parents might have been hippies, but they eventually had to face the music and become a well-oiled cog. It was this collective journey towards the middle class, powered by a decent economy and job opportunities for young people, that kept the U.S. at the forefront during the 20th century. Now that the economy is trashed and young people are no longer encouraged or self-motivated to aspire to the kind of lifestyles their parents and grandparents lived, there really is no way out. There are certainly a multitude of factors that can explain or stem from the “condition” so many 20-somethings find themselves in. Making up half-assed psychological theories to explain it, or convincing people that spending a decade in work, economic, and maturity purgatory is “awesome,” does nothing to address the problem. There are no jobs, and an entire generation is floundering because they can’t get into the workforce. No one's to say if this problem can actually be fixed, nor if there are any easy answers. However, academic puffs and their pals at the NYT need to stop coming up with lame, esoteric explanations for the plight of this generation, and especially need to stop portraying their decline in economic prospects as a positive thing.


  1. It is MUCH easier to cast a giant net over a generation - by labeling them as "lazy adultolescents" - than it is to address the root causes of this economic problem. That is why you see snarky articles like this piece of trash that was recently published in the New York Times.

    Most of the highly-educatd 20-somethings I know suffer from malaise, no sense of purpose, constant frustration - and many are also fighting off feelings of worthlessness and suicide. But, hey let's just label them ALL as irresponsible, lazy dolts who prefer to play Xbox 5 hours a day.

    What is most deplorable about this article, and this sentiment, is that it usually comes from Baby Boomers - the generation who sold us on abject materialism in the first place.

  2. There are a multitude of factors but I think the key ones are; a disdain for blue collar work and the self esteem movement. Both of these have produced a generation, quite like you brilliantly stated, that expects and desires to have white collar jobs. Yet, most of these kids don't realize that Joe the bartender or bob the plumber will probably be making more than their lawyer/accountant ass with far less debt and stress.

  3. "There are a multitude of factors but I think the key ones are; a disdain for blue collar work and the self esteem movement. Both of these have produced a generation, quite like you brilliantly stated, that expects and desires to have white collar jobs. Yet, most of these kids don't realize that Joe the bartender or bob the plumber will probably be making more than their lawyer/accountant ass with far less debt and stress."

    Are you a blue-collar worker, Anon 2:25? Is the author of this blog? I ask because from L4L to every other scamblogger there is this romanticization of blue-collar work as an easily available, viable alternative to law and other professions; and yet I see few people who have made that transition. If the only thing keeping this generation from gainful employment as blue-collar workers is their own snobbish white-collar aspirations, then why haven't more of you who HAVE seen the light undertaken this career path?

  4. Excellent post! This is a smart blog, one of my favorites among the scamblog community. In particular, I like the birds eye view perspective and reality based arguments. We need more of this common sense, and less fashionable, partisan nonsense.

  5. Spengler's Newly Unemployed Shop RatAugust 20, 2010 at 3:29 PM

    Anonymous @3:04 PM is correct here. The entry paths into blue-collar work are just as closed in today's economy as they are for 'white-collar', 'professional' positions. And wage deflation is just as apparent.

    In the 1970s and early 1980s it was possible to get an entry-level job in a factory or foundry and buy a modest home with that income. Then - if you wanted to - you could try for an internal promotion to an apprenticeship, and learn a skilled trade. This provided more job security and put you squarely into the ranks of the middle class.

    Now the foundries and factories are almost all gone. Chrysler and GM are hiring new employees at $13/hour (~$26K per annum) and shit benefits. The in-house tradesmen are all gone too - supplanted by non-union contractors who are paid $15 hourly with a 1099 and no benefits. You can try going down to the union halls and applying for an apprenticeship, but the building trades have all but collapsed in the last two years. There isn't enough work to go around for the masters and journeymen. And that high-flight college degree you were so proud of will look very out of place on that application. I should also mention all the ads I've been seeing lately for $12/hr electricians. The WSJ recently ran an article quoting a businessman complaining that he could not find any qualified $13/hr machinists. It normally takes five or more years of training to become a machinist.

    And the NYT article? Utter tripe, for all the reasons mentioned. In this country you used to be able to give up on your nebulous and farfetched dreams for security and a decent income. Now it's your dreams, or nothing. Why not try to become a painter/sculptor/actor/blogger/playwright/whatever? What else are you going to do?

  6. What's wrong with 20-something's? How about "What's wrong with their parents who gave them no guidance on accruing debt, detecting fraud, starting a family, and other real issues rather than shoving them in an undergraduate school and saying 'My's work's finished!'"

    Parenting in general over the last 50-60 years has been nothing but rotten for the most part.

  7. 3:04, I don't think anyone is claiming there is an abundance of romantic blue-collar jobs. Part of the argument I tried to present is that there is a distinct lack of entry-level work, either white or blue-collar, that was present one or two generations ago. This is a major factor contributing to the crunch that 20-somethings are faced with.

    The problem isn't so much that "paths are closed," it's that we've closed down, outsourced, or simply debased the manufacturing and low-level white-collar economies in this country to the point that they don't exist anymore, at least not at levels necessary to employ tens of millions of un/underemployed.

    That being said, at 18 I would recommend anyone to look seriously at building and learning a trade rather than taking the route I took, college and later law school. They will probably have just as difficult a time, and it's sure to be no golden ticket, but at least they will have a real, pliable skill. As for why legions of underemployed law grads don't all take up this point, having plunked down for 7+ years of higher education, does anyone really have the stomach to spend more years paying for trade school, then more time apprenticing? How many hats must a 20-something wear, how many semesters' worth of tuition must they pay, how many degrees, certifications, and qualifications are needed before someone can get a decent job? I'm certainly not going to turn around and double down for yet more schooling.

    I would say more young people should consider military service, but what happens when you come out? Also, to hear it told, the ranks are already bristling with enlistees and commissions, and many of the most desirable entry tracks (OCS for college grads, or JAG for lawyers) are reporting record-breaking applications every time a new application board is held.

    So what happens when an entire generation is thrown out into a world that neither wants nor can employ them? We can't all become carpenters, we can't all join the army. Not everyone can do TFA, and they certainly can't intern/work for free indefinitely. There is truly no good ending in sight.

  8. Great post as always.

    Made me think of the insane generational double standard with wall street when I read this:

    Especially after I saw this:

  9. Family friend of mine, whom I used to baby-sit many moons ago, is now all grown up and mid-20-something.

    She went to college, landed a "job" and busts her hump every day for pittance wages.

    She's bright and hard-working. However, she fights malaise because of her future prospects. What "career path" awaits her? How can she change her trajectory with experience at a minimum-wage job? With what is she supposed to invest in order to go to the next step, whatever the hell that is - more education?

    She must be in "emerging adulthood." Right.

  10. The article in question was likely written by an early boomer who could get a white collar job at GM in 1967 with an English degree (with all due respect to English degree-holders).

    These people are SOLD on "higher education", without regard to major, and always will be; a self-centered generation which will recognize no new paradigm, nor the demise of the old one. To them, it was always, and always will be, about them.

    There are people out there who are never going to grasp the concept that the post-World War Two phenomenon, and the several decades of relative prosperity it brought here, rested upon a postwar devastated Europe and Asia which simply no longer exist.

  11. With regards to my detractors, (im anonymous 2:25 p.m.) no, I am not currently in blue collar. I do commercial real estate development. I switched to this path after being kicked out of a tier 2 law school. In the interim between law school and real estate, about two years, I bartended, did construction, and a host of other jobs. Say all you want, yes the economy is in the shitter, but where there is a will, there is a way.

  12. Wow, Anonymous 9:02, commercial real estate - that sucks for you.

  13. Thank for the clarification at 4:48 p.m. It was a thoughtful and well-thought out problem of the analysis.

    As for 9:02 p.m., I am not a "detractor," but I am not surprised that you consider construction and bartending "interim" jobs for yourself, but insist sneeringly that unemployed college grads should be entering these fields in droves and building long-term careers, except for their inflated "self-esteem" and disdain for blue-collar work.

    3:04 PM

  14. Perhaps your generation should mandate retirements. Until the old make way and train the younger generation, the econoomy will be Atherosclerotic. You are are all right, your parents and their parents made some seriously bad choices. However the most self-centered and short sighted was the enactment of age discrimination laws combined with the wholesale repudiation of mandatory employer financed defined pension plans and retirement health benefits culminating in thier privatization and the 90's S&L banking crisis. It left no choices.

  15. My perspective about the current situation of 20 somethings is a combination of two things. The economy is obviously a huge factor in why there are alot of un/underemployed 20 somethings myself being one of them. However, I also agree that my generation is full of lazy ass fugg ups. I am 26, and growing up my family was poor. I didn't have much, however because of my socioeconomic status I was very driven to make something of myself. Many people I know who grew up in well off or wealthy families had almost everything provided for them, and they didn't have to worry about many things. These were the people who constantly f'd up and didn't have to deal with too many consequences because their parents were there to always save them financially. They survived off the merits of their parents.

    For instance, my roommate is 24. He failed out of college 3 times, however he has no debt because his parents paid his tuition in cash in full every single time. He comes from a good family. His father is a tenured Professor in Taiwan, and his mother is a Chemist for a pharma company. His older brother is a Resident at an NYC hospital. He has a lot of potential, and he isn't a stupid guy. He's just lazy as hell, and has no motivation to apply himself because his parents keep paying for all of his mistakes and never let him be a man.

    I know he obviously does not represent everyone in the age group, however he is not the only case I know of lazy ass spoiled people.

    Look at television these days. You see rich young celebrities on TV f'ing up and not facing consequences. You see images of a rare lifestyle that most people in this country do not live however many people strive for.

  16. My sister dropped out of college after one year and now makes 50k, with no debt, going around and signing businesses up for some program designed to cut their health-care costs. She and her husband have had a kid and bought a house.

    I just graduated from a T14 law school with 160k in debt and no employment prospects.

    I don't think that the world of blue collar or low-skilled white collar employment offers an easy path to middle-class security. But most people don't realize that it's much safer than the glorified law school route advertised to Americans from childhood onward.

  17. Aside from the high debt load, and our advanced ages (trade schools are looking for younger people), the paths aren't really there now for blue collar jobs either. Does it really make sense to get more and more schooling and just get older and older?

    I'd be happy with doc review personally, but that is gone. At least when those of us that graduated a couple of years ago signed up for law school we knew that was an option. $35/hr and they'd hire anybody, because the jobs were considered terrible. Sure it had no prestige and the conditions were bad, but that was money, money that could pay off your loans and let you do something else in a few years if you were frugal.

    As for the military, I got rejected from JAG twice, even with a recommendation from the interviewer. I got into OCS in one of the two boards I tried for, one of less than 8% selected on that board. That means I was better than 92%, I wouldn't say that is a sure bet.

    But even that isn't easy. You have to get into great shape and have medical clearances and background checks. I do not believe the majority of law grads will have an easy time of it. I'm glad I even got this far.

  18. What was your general school rank and class rank when applying to JAG, 8:07, and what branch(es) did you apply to? Just a curious 3L here.

  19. "If the only thing keeping this generation from gainful employment as blue-collar workers is their own snobbish white-collar aspirations, then why haven't more of you who HAVE seen the light undertaken this career path?"

    They outsourced or otherwise eliminated the blue collar jobs a generation ago. It's hilarious/sickening that people still think these jobs exist after 30 years of cheering their demise. Now the cycle of reducing the workforce that started in the 1970s has reached the upper layers of white collar "knowledge" workers, and everyone acts as if a job shortage is some sort of shock?

  20. I blame Obama. Just keeps encouraging handouts. Where's the incentive?

  21. I blame it on the porn. And Glenn Beck. That guy is the "actual" anti-Christ.

  22. Seriously get informed. The baby boomers are a hugely diverse group responsible for ten major sociological movements. Sexual Revolution, Womens Lib, and Civil Rights to name a few. What has your generation done so far? Boomers include all the wing nuts from tea party to occupy wall street. Following the hippies were the Yuppies. Upwardly mobile youth and rejecting their parents generations spiritual angle , were as materialistic as hell and they are the bundlers who soullessly created the near fall of the financial system in their quest for riches! The "people" are not in control. The machinations of the 1% are what pulled the rug from under you. In 1979 under Regan I had three part time jobs just to survive 13% unemployment. GET INFORMED YOU'RE HALF BAKED!

  23. I appreciate your writing because you described really an exclusive news. Thanks for sharing such an informative post.

  24. obviously like your web-site however you have to check the spelling on quite
    a few of your posts. Many of them are rife with spelling problems and I in finding
    it very bothersome to inform the reality
    nevertheless I will surely come back again.