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.