What's the Matter With Twentysomething Kids Today?
A Slate discussion on the state and fate of young people.
I almost definitely was overselling my own maturity. I guess a better answer is that I feel more adult than I did a few years ago, because I have been living in the same place and paying the same bills, and something about that feels calcified in a certain way. Repetition sliding into settledness would not be a compelling advertorial slogan for adulthood, but that seems like at least a component of it, even if it's not as clear a yardstick. Pre-kids, it's rare to have a sea-change feeling.
I'm with you, Noreen, in thinking that the last thing twentysomethings need is to feel that they are not only labeled by their elders, but also solicitously enabled by them. Sure, some things—like health insurance and better loan arrangements—will help. But almost inevitably, won't more fine-tuned facilitating make the process of claiming, and feeling, independence more difficult, not less? Adolescence as we now know it has undergone something of that same fate, as the period became one deemed in need of adult defining, directing, underwriting. There was less room for the unsupervised rebelliousness that youth once enjoyed. There was also less of the kind of age-mixing that had been more common as a more monitored peer-culture emerged. It seems to me that the sense of being relegated to an adult-defined cohort is part, Sam, of what gets in the way of feeling grown up—perhaps even, or especially, when the well-intentioned defining is supposed to be developmentally liberating.
Isn't New York Magazine always writing about how parents act like children, anyway (see "Grups")? And what of the line in Greenberg: "The adults dress like children and the children dress like superheroes."
Boomers also still don't want to think they're grown-ups. See those ridiculous Dennis Hopper surfing ads for Ameriprise? They're going to turn retirement upside down!
I think we're having a discussion now about thinking like adults vs. behaving like adults. None of us may feel like adults, but almost all of us certainly behave like them.
Nina Shen Rastogi
When I saw this line in Henig's piece: "Arnett calls it 'the age 30 deadline' " ... I read the phrase as "the age 30 decline." Which could be the title of my autobiography at the moment. I feel like I'm at a point in my life where the demarcation between "adult" and "not an adult" is shifting. In my 20s, I figured I'd be an adult whenever I had a cool-sounding job and learned how to stop dating assholes. But now it's become a financial matter: I'll be an adult when I have—or am on my way to having—enough money to buy a home, pay for a couple of kids' tuitions, and be secure in the knowledge that I'll be able to take care of my parents when they need me. And I'm so pissed no one explained to this to me earlier! Self-actualization is starting to seem like kind of a bum deal ... and yet, I'll never get over feeling like I'm a beautiful flower who deserves (and has a duty) to find herself. Call it the Scylla and Charybdis of the overeducated, middle-class, rapidly aging "emerging adult."
Reading the piece, I kept thinking that the subhead should have been "The science behind why you don't have grandkids yet." This felt like an article by boomers, for boomers. I do think that the trend towards delayed marriage and child bearing is real—especially among the children of Times readers—but I don't particularly like the idea of viewing my 20s through a scientific lens, or through our parent's generations' need for us to grow up.
By way of analogy: When I was in seventh grade, I had sex education in school. It focused almost exclusively on STDs. I remember talking to my father—who is loving but reserved—about it in the car one day. He took a really long beat, blushed, and blurted out, "I hope they're telling you that it's fun, too." Needless to say, that was a detail that they'd omitted from the seventh-grade curriculum.
Like that junior high sex ed class, this piece just drains the enjoyment out of "early adulthood." It's not just anxiety, confusion, and failure to start a real career (although it is certainly all that). I had a great time: I graduated into a recession in NYC, had very little direction, and worked just as hard as I needed to pay my rent and go out every night.
Several years ago, I met my wife, got my first W-2 job, moved to D.C., and had a child. Today, when I got home, my 21-month-old son said, "I love you," for the first time. Which is to say: I am now an adult of the most traditional sort. I don't think that the "early adult" version of his father will be recognizable to him; parents have a way of keeping these stories from their children, and I doubt I'll buck that trend.
So while I think that the phenomenon (at least for highly educated folks) is real, I also think that parents need to worry about it less and accept that their children are grown, whether or not they have full careers, spouses, or children. And people in their 20s should know that post-collegiate years are particularly disorienting, especially in a down economy, but that life is long and adults can have fun, too.
Many of the things people have said here made me think of a letter my friend Shane showed me once, from the political philosopher and social theorist (and Brazil's former minister of strategic affairs) Roberto Unger to his young son. It's the wisest thing I've ever read about growing up. I'd say more about it, but paragraphs like this leave me dumbstruck:
As we pass through childhood, each of us, a storehouse of alternative ways of becoming a person, imagines many different courses of action and of life he may later take. However, we cannot be everything in the world. We must choose a path, and reject other paths. This rejection, indispensable to our self-development, is also a mutilation. In choosing, as we must, we cast aside many aspects of our humanity. If, however, we cast them aside completely, we become less than fully human. We must continue somehow to feel the movements of the limbs we cut off. To learn how to feel them is the first major work of the imagination.
On that excellent note, let me thank all of you for your engaged and provocative thoughts on this subject—especially our readers, who have contributed enough smart ideas to sustain the discussion for weeks.
Dan Check is Slate's director of technology. Jessica Grose is an associate editor at Slate, managing editor of DoubleX, and co-author of Love, Mom: Poignant, Goofy, Brilliant Messages From Home.Nathan Heller is a Slate copy editor. Samantha Henig is the digital news editor at The New Yorker. Ann Hulbert is the author of Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children. Noreen Malone is a Slate contributor. Leon Neyfakh is a culture reporter at the New York Observer. Nina Shen Rastogi is a Slate contributor.