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.

Nathan Heller
Welcome, everyone. Yesterday the New York Times Magazine posted online a preview of an article, "What Is It About 20-Somethings?" that will appear in this weekend's issue. The piece is by Robin Marantz Henig, and it's a meaty, thoroughly reported look at a question that's rising to the fore as the boomlet comes of age: What's the matter with twentysomething kids these days? Henig describes a trend of "young people taking longer to reach adulthood":

It's a development that predates the current economic doldrums, and no one knows yet what the impact will be. … The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain untethered 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.

It's an eloquent portrait of my generation—I'm in my middle 20s—and Henig uses it to introduce the work of Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a psychologist who's written about a late-adolescent stage he designates "emerging adulthood." Trying to frame Arnett's work, Henig reviews lab research (a longitudinal study of brain development) and past theories of similar trends (e.g., Kenneth Keniston's writing on the twentysomething phase he called "youth"). She weighs socioeconomic factors (have middle-class twentysomethings been too coddled?) and explores how expectations might change if we recognize "emerging adulthood" as a distinct phase. The piece ends with a quandary: "[W]e're caught in a weird moment, unsure whether to allow young people to keep exploring and questioning or to cut them off and tell them just to find something, anything, to put food on the table and get on with their lives."

Screengrab of the New York Times Magazine web page.
Screengrab of the New York Times Magazine web page.

I'm pretty sure the "we" here does not include me, but it happens I've been chewing on these questions a lot recently (being, you know, a twentysomething of restless and brooding mien), and I have a few thoughts.

My own theory, which I'll throw into the ring to kick things off, is that the underlying assumption of this article is backward: It seems to me that when you look past the surface textures, the governing impulse of my generation isn't the wanderlust-of-the-soul that Henig takes as a premise. It's an abiding, somewhat alarming cultural conservatism. Connect the dots of the predicament she describes, and the picture that emerges isn't of freewheeling disorder and deliberately protracted adolescence; it's a limbo state caused by fixed value systems and pervasive risk-aversion.

I can elaborate as we keep chatting—but did anyone have a similar response? Or is it my 20s talking?

Ann Hulbert
I wrote a "Way We Live Now" piece for the Times a while back in which I suggested that Arnett's new category perhaps says more about how parental figures think about young people than about how young people think about themselves (unless they've by now swallowed their elders' theories). That is, baby boomers have discovered and labeled something as new—the better to obsess over it—that has actually been observed for a century or so in the developed world, not least among their own cohort. (As Henig's article points out, Kenneth Keniston said exactly the same thing about baby boomers back when they were twentysomethings.) Listen to the twentysomething essayist Randolph Bourne, reflecting roughly a century ago on how "in our artificial civilization many young people at 25 are still on the threshold of activity." And like you, Nathan, he didn't diagnose carefree recklessness. All the turmoil had left them, he commented, feeling "startlingly old; one wonders if one will ever feel so old again."

I think I'd agree with both of you in questioning the notion of adolescent limbo. It's true that ages at marriage have crept higher and higher—yet it seems that young people no longer consider being married and having kids the key determinant of maturity. Polls suggest they rate other traditional milestones as more important: finding full-time work, becoming financially independent, and being able to support a family. With debt—an adult experience if there ever was one—more common among students than ever, those milestones presumably take longer to meet, though today's young people hardly look like hopeless procrastinators. Taking those accomplishments into account (leaving out marriage and parenthood), roughly 80 percent of 30-year-olds in 1960 qualified as adult. Now 70 percent do. And if more of them these days hold off on families for longer, under the circumstances couldn't that be the, well, grownup course to take, not a case of arrested development?

Jessica Grose
As a twentysomething, I've also observed something of a backlash to the freewheeling, protracted adolescence bemoaned by our boomer parents. There is some data that bears that out, though not necessarily enough to declare the trend much more than anecdotal: The age at first motherhood has recently dropped for the first time since statistics have been kept, and there is evidence that Gen Y is more marriage-minded than the generations immediately preceding us (though if you look at median age at first marriage on a state-by-state basis there is a lot of variation).

I also find it intriguing that the current complaint about our generation is that we put off growing up, considering the fact that just a few years ago, David Brooks was bemoaning the fact that we were a bunch of overly rigid, achievement-obsessed "organization kids." This leads me to wonder if the current characterization of twentysomethings is almost exclusively based on the economy. Ann, as you point out, we still care very deeply about finding full time work and being able to support a family. We aren't always becoming financially self-sufficient and meeting those particular goals of adulthood in our 20s, not because we're not trying, but because good jobs are incredibly scarce.

Leon Neyfakh
Yeah, I'm not sure where these wide-eyed, hopeful wanderers are. I guess Berlin? Certainly all my friends in New York who are in their mid-20s feel like if they don't get their act together in about five minutes there will be no hope for any success ever. The idea of "taking some time to explore and make mistakes," at least professionally, is not one any of us would seriously consider: The consensus is that unless we specialize and excel before the "age 30 deadline" Arnett mentions, we will be doomed.

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On the other hand, most of us also sincerely think there's a good chance the world will end in our lifetimes, so maybe that also explains why we're in such a hurry.

Noreen Malone
With all due respect, Leon, I'm not sure that your cohort in New York is even vaguely representative—people come here to achieve stuff, it's too expensive to just hang out for kicks unless you're parentally bankrolled on a grand scale. Meanwhile, some of my high school friends are touring with their band in South Korea or waitressing in Berkeley or hanging out joblessly in Champaign, Ill., deciding whether to finish that Ph.D. or not. Henig's not wrong that these types exist.

But those are very vintage lifestyles, as Nathan suggests, and it's true that my very first reaction to the piece was anxiety about not keeping pace with my peers in the wandering department—a sad little "organization kid" reaction to have. And my second was the snotty childish (or "emerging adult") reaction that we can very loudly blame our parents, who bought into the myth of their own boomer exceptionalism, and transferred it to us.

In their narrative, as written by Henig, we're not spoiled; we're finding ourselves. That's a very familiar concept to them. Henig even writes: "It's reassuring, actually, to think of it as recursive, to imagine that there must always be a cohort of 20-somethings who take their time settling down, just as there must always be a cohort of 50-somethings who worry about it."

My mom always sort of sardonically refers to kids my age as "petted and feted." But she hung a clipping of mine on the fridge recently and yesterday sent me a care package that included quarters nicely rolled for laundry and apologizes for not funding, like, eco-tourism jaunts to Costa Rica, because all her friends do that for their kids. I feel underprivileged because she feels guilty about not providing something that is very much a luxury. It is very often the case, though, that people end up doing these jealousy-provoking programs and trips because they can't get another job, and their parents are worried about what it will do for their momentum and even mental health to just hang out. Which wasn't what happened at all during the last Depression, when people also got married much later and were jobless for long stretches.

Samantha Henig
I've been thinking about this topic a lot, having been privy to the whole editorial process: Robin Marantz Henig is my mother. (So watch how you talk about her!) I actually had the somewhat bizarre experience of giving her a "background" interview for the piece, during which she, in full reporter mode but still very much my mother, asked me such things as when I planned to get married and have kids. (I'm 26 now.) I, in turn, have given the same treatment to many of my friends, grilling them about whether they think they're adults (an almost universal "no") and when they think that will change (to which my favorite response was "when someone kills my parents and I have to avenge their death, like Batman").

Jess, you're right that a lot of the general discussion about the "Boomerang Generation" is anecdotal, but I think what's interesting about the Times Magazine piece is that it takes it further than that, and I hope we can do the same here. Jeffrey Arnett, the scientist who's pushing for "emerging adulthood" to be considered a unique psychological stage, makes the helpful comparison to adolescence, which, as my mother writes, is "a stage we take for granted but one that had to be recognized by psychologists, accepted by society and accommodated by institutions that served the young." It's easy—and reasonable—to point to external factors to explain this "emerging adulthood trend": the bad economy forcing people to change jobs; advancements in fertility drugs allowing a later start at having kids.