A Slate discussion on twentysomething kids.

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Aug. 20 2010 1:14 PM

What's the Matter With Twentysomething Kids Today?

A Slate discussion on the state and fate of young people.

Readers, please join us in this Slate discussion of the New York Times' piece on twentysomethings by posting your own thoughts and questions in the commenting section below the article.

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There were similar changes a hundred years ago (being in school longer, delaying marriage and childbearing) that allowed people to recognize the existence of adolescence. But we now pretty widely recognize it as a phase distinct both from childhood and adulthood. So is "emerging adulthood" comparable?

One of the best arguments to me that emerging adulthood, like adolescence, is its own phase (which means it's not just a Millennial thing or just a recession thing) is what's happening in the brain. Just like adolescents might go through their "identity exploration" by turning to promiscuity and excessive drug use, or by locking themselves in the basement playing video games and never so much as touching a beer or a boob, "emerging adults," too, can take a number of forms. But one thing that bonds adolescents across the board is what happens with their hormones. And scientists are seeing similar physical manifestations of "emerging adulthood," with the new realization that the brain does not fully mature until age 25 or so. There's definitely a cultural element to these phases (and, as you mentioned Jess, an economic one), but it looks like there's a physical one, too.

The other interesting question to me is why all this matters, beyond the level of "Well now I can send this article to my parents and get them off my back." (Unless your parent wrote the article, in which case she already sort of gets it.) On a policy level, we offer protections to children and to adolescents: They have a separate criminal justice system; they can be declared as dependents on taxes and covered by their parents' health insurance; they are guaranteed a free education. If we do come to accept this new period between adolescence and adulthood as its own stage, what policy implications should that have? This is, of course, an age group that often enters the workplace laden with student debt. If a 22-year-old doesn't even have a fully mature brain yet, should we really expect him to be on top of paying off his loans, managing his health care plan, and all the other hassles that come with full-on adulthood?

Nathan Heller
Thanks, Sam. One question we seem to be orbiting is whether the "changing timetable for adulthood" is really much of a change. I found myself slightly unclear—maybe you can set me straight—on how the various pieces of the Times article fit together: We're given evidence on the one hand it's a developmental stage and should be recognized as such (i.e., that it's not unique to this moment), and on the other hand we're told that something is different (and not just for economic reasons) among this current crop of twentysomethings.

Is this a new problem? Is it a problem at all? As I read that Times thesis paragraph I quoted earlier, I couldn't help but hear echoes of Didion's opening to "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" sounding the siren nearly half a century ago: "Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together."

Let's talk about those games. One of the things I thought the Henig piece was a little slippery on was whether twentysomethings hadn't yet learned the games (an adolescent development issue) or whether they knew the games all too well but are having difficulty playing them (the drive to get to a stable place that Ann and Leon are pointing to). That's partly what I was thinking, too, when I said I found a strain of cultural conservatism in my contemporaries: There seems to be an emphasis on playing the games we've inherited—or else kind of hanging around town, biding time till we have an opportunity to—rather than creating new games, which has been more the emphasis among young people at various points in the past. For all the inevitable comparisons to the '60s generation, in fact, this strikes me as a very different sensibility than what Didion, or for that matter Keniston, was describing. (Keniston, we should say by way of context, cast himself as perhaps the leading therapist figure for campus unrest in the late '60s and early '70s; he wrote prolifically on the subject for the mainstream press during those years and was one of a handful of campus academics who theorized the student movements as they were going on.)

Do people have other thoughts on this comparison to the state of youth circa 1970, which everyone, including David Brooks, seems to want to make? That Batman line you quoted, Sam, is great—and also interesting because the idea of being overshadowed by one's parents, and their expectations, is a recurring motif of the '60s counterculture. Has it indeed all been done before—and, if so, done for the same reasons?

Samantha Henig
Nathan and Ann, I love thinking about the fact that for all the hubbub about Millennials flitting around and delaying responsibility, we're actually no different than the boomers in the way we navigate the early adulthood years. I just stumbled on another example of that during my lunch break, from Martin Amis' 1973 novel The Rachel Papers, which I'm currently reading. Speculating on his upcoming 20th birthday, the narrator muses:

I'd have to throw in my lot with all those twitchy twenty-five-year-olds I had noticed about the place, the characters who find egocentricity numinous in itself. Intermittently articulate, something held back, a third eye hovering above their heads, intrigued and forever gripped by the contrast between them and everyone else.

Look round: everything, except you, is (wait for it) quite unlike what you are, altogether dissimilar, a totally different kettle of fish.

Too true! Emerging adults are both different from everyone else and totally obsessed with talking about how different we are. I fear that by engaging in this very conversation I am shamelessly playing to type.

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Still, I will engage a little further to ask whether you all think that labeling "emerging adulthood" as a psychological phase, as Arnett wants to do, would validate the hardships that come with it. We're used to excusing, to some extent, the tantrums of a toddler or the melodrama of a high-schooler because we understand that they're going through important steps of setting boundaries, exploring, forming their identity. And although plenty has been written about Gen Y twentysomethings hopping from job to job and shirking the family life, I feel like Arnett's positive branding of this phase—not the entitled "extended adolescence" but the forward-looking "emerging adulthood"—does something new. If he's right, then it's not that we're lazy or scared of commitment, nor is it as simple as being victims of a bad economy; we're going through a necessary phase of development that will help us take on the grown-up responsibilities coming our way.

What fascinates me is how this could play out, if Arnett's does eventually become the accepted position. How might the government cater to this group? Letting young people stay on their parents' health insurance until age 26 was a good first step. Deferring student loan payments would be another. How about requiring landlords to offer six-month leases to twentysomethings? Or government-issued "career changing" grants that give you some money to start off on a new path, allowing you to accept, perhaps, that unpaid journalism internship that would otherwise be infeasible? Any other thoughts on policy implications?

Noreen Malone
Sam, I think I would answer your question about whether I feel like an adult with a yes—because I pay my own bills, with the exception of a spin cycle or two—and so I worry about money, which is the most adult feeling in the world, as Ann points out. But my friends who are unemployed but not funded by their parents worry even more about money, and some have gotten into credit card debt as a result, so they're getting the sort of charred aftertaste of adulthood without even having gotten a bite of the real thing. (I can blame the boomers for passing on bad spending habits there, too, I suppose). And I am very much surprising myself with my conservatism here, but I don't think the government catering to us more is necessarily the answer.

Student loan deferments and health care extensions I can totally get behind, but advocating for career-path change funding is sort of self-parodical. This isn't—at least as set forth in the Times piece—a problem of true underprivilege. So, fine, our brains aren't done developing until at least 25—but isn't the last part and most important of an education figuring out for yourself how to move forward with your own wheels and steering? Teething is a painful growth process, too, but we don't try to delay it. Wouldn't funding for practical job training be better? Passing a better student-loan-reform bill? We're upset because the implication behind all this hand-wringing is that we're coddled dilettantes (as opposed to true bohemians, or nose-to-the-grindstoners, or something), so why do we want to formalize a structure for dilletantism?

Nathan Heller
Sam, thanks for the Rachel Papers quote—"characters who find egocentricity numinous in itself" is a fantastic Amis line. It makes me think of a sentence in Dave Eggers' first book, which has not coincidentally become a canon text of self-absorbed twentysomethingdom, that goes something like (I don't have it at my desk, so I'm paraphrasing): It is very difficult to make the lives of people in their early 20s seem interesting, even though those people were convinced their lives were extremely interesting at the time. I think we can safely declare that the particular egocentricity of this age is timeless.

That said, let's keep talking about ourselves. I don't have much of a mind for policy, so I'll let smarter people around this table take up that baton—but I had the same thought as Noreen: All of the possible governmental gestures you enumerate, Sam, offer leniency. None apply constraint (in the way that being unable to vote, or drink, or rent a car does). Is there any concern that shaping policy around the idea of "emerging adulthood" could help create a hyperindulgent phase in which people have every adult privilege but few adult responsibilities? And that this could simply defer further, rather than eliminate, that painful grownup reckoning?

Samantha Henig
I pay my own bills too, Noreen, but I don't feel like that makes me as an adult. I have plenty of grown-up responsibilities, but I'm not responsible for anyone but myself. If I want to live a totally selfish life (which arguably would still include paying my bills, for the selfish reason of wanting to avoid late fees and keep my utilities running), I can. No one is counting on me, and any wrong moves—romantic, career, financial—only hurt me. It's that, more than my bank account or job title, that makes me feel like I'm not quite a grown-up. The stakes are just too low. And even though I'm not one for trips to Asia to find myself or whatever, the fact remains that if I wanted to and could afford to take one, there'd be nothing truly standing in my way. Like, say, a hungry toddler.

I told all of that to my mother during our off-the-record interview when she was working on this piece, and she raised the very reasonable question, "Well what about people who don't have kids? Are they never adults?" I stammered about it then, and I can't say that I've figured it out now. I'm thinking about George Clooney here. When, if ever, did George Clooney grow up?

Noreen Malone
By that definition, empty-nesters and retirees aren't entirely adult, either—they can go off to Asia on a whim, too. Maybe that's why our parents need to keep taking care of us, to feel adult. (And why they're way more fun to split a bottle of wine with than parents of young children.)

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