Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Roaring Twentysomethings and Reclaiming Adulthood: A Response to The New York Times

Last week the New York Times published an article entitled “What is it about TwentySomethings?” that has generated frenzied conversation around the web. I have purposefully avoided reading The Slate’s, and the Huffington Post’s, and Salon’s responses to the article until I could really delve into the piece, draw my own conclusions, and bring them to Welcome to Adulthood for discussion[*]. At the end of it all, I want to hear from you. After all, we are a blog about adulthood, so this is a territory we are experts on – whether we are twentysomething or not.

[*]I have said it before, and I will say it again, we are so lucky to have a brain trust of super smart, interesting, and insightful readers who, time and time again, prove just how valuable collective wisdom is. A fellow blogger once told me that the soul of a blog is in its comments, and I really believe that is true. Thanks again for all your infinite wisdom, Adulthooders, and keep those comments coming.

The author of the NY Times piece, Robin Marantz Henig, relies on one main source as she explores her topic, a professor of psychology at Clark University named Jeffrey Jensen Arnett. Arnett’s claim is that twentysomethings represent a new developmental stage that he calls “emerging adulthood.”

According to Arnett, this stage is when twentysomethings are finding their way, either in college or out of college, with a job or without, and he sees this as a time period of self-exploration.

He believes that in the 21st century, where there is less pressure to “become an adult” so quickly (he is equating adulthood as marriage, good job, house, and family, pretty much in that order), twentysomethings are instead using the time to languish in the decade. Many live at home with their parents, many do not have good jobs or a career path, and many engage in serial dating (not a term he uses, but he may as well have) as opposed to getting married.

Henig offers interesting data (or should I say data couched in judgement, see my comments following) to support Arnett’s claims:

The 20s are a black box, and there is a lot of churning in there. One-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year. Forty percent move back home with their parents at least once. They go through an average of seven jobs in their 20s, more job changes than in any other stretch. Two-thirds spend at least some time living with a romantic partner without being married. And marriage occurs later than ever. The median age at first marriage in the early 1970s, when the baby boomers were young, was 21 for women and 23 for men; by 2009 it had climbed to 26 for women and 28 for men, five years in a little more than a generation.

But the problem with Henig’s rhetoric here is that a loaded sentence frames her data: she likens the 20s to a black box, with “a lot of churning.” A black box reads to me as a mysterious, closed-system only really examined in times of disaster. And "a lot of churning" seems to indicate that within this closed-system is a lot of noise and movement, but not much logic.

At another point in the article Henig writes:

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.

Here she is suggesting that the twentysomethings’ lack of relationship and good job, as well as taking the option of a graduate degree or Teach for America are because they are languishing in not having responsibilities. The word “forestall” suggests to me an active kind of laziness that is premeditated in an effort to put off responsible living.

But it might not be our fault, she intimates.

Henig cites some studies on how the brain is still not fully mature in these twentysomething years, and thus we are not ready to be stable and mature adults. She also talks about how many parents aid and abed the twentysomethings by continuing to support them emotionally and financially while they find their path. So, for twentysomethings it is Nature and Nurture that contribute to their lack of “adult” motivations, at least that’s what Henig seems to suggest.

While she does mention the economy, and that the economic downturn may have something to do with this generation’s challenges, it comes near the conclusion of the article as an afterthought:

Of course, the recession complicates things, and even if every 20-something were ready to skip the “emerging” moratorium and act like a grown-up, there wouldn’t necessarily be jobs for them all. So we’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.

In the end, Henig endorses Arnett’s call for a “middle road” that lets twentysomethings “meander” but which ultimately makes them better and more successful real adults (I say real, because that seems to be what they are implying with this “emerging adulthood” business.) If this is true, she says, “then Arnett’s vision of an insightful, sensitive, thoughtful, content, well-honed, self-actualizing crop of grown-ups would indeed be something worth waiting for.”

One problem I have with the article is that the tone seems snarky. Her use of loaded words and phrases like some of the ones I have already pointed out, as well as some I didn’t point out but should have (“ cut them off and tell them to just find something, anything…”), makes it read like an accusation rather than an expository article. If an author comes off too judgemental, she is bound to expect some criticism. And maybe it's because I am 29 and feel defensive. Or maybe it is because I blog about adulthood and feel there is real value in learning lessons all throughout your life, not just in your twenties. Either way, I think her tone didn’t do much for her credibility and ethos.

As far as the actual argument, I think there is a lot of truth to the idea that the twentysomething years are a lot more complicated than they used to be. In fact, it is something we have even blogged about before on WelcometoAdulthood.

What Henig's article lacks is a bigger-picture contextual analysis of the changing and challenging road that twentysomethings have faced since probably the 1960s. She also does not take into consideration the complex racial and gender politics that existed historically (and still do in many ways) that severly limited opportunity for many twentysomethings.

Recently on Adulthood, we learned from our discussion comments on feminism and the modern housewife that the feminist movement allowed women to make choices. It opened up opportunities and dialogue for women, and slowly but surely affected change unto the workforce and into the domestic realm. Women today can choose their path, and don’t have to run off at 18 years old and get married and start a family if they don’t want to.

I take issue with the term “emerging adult” because it insinuates that during this twentysomething period our decisions are uninformed and immature. To make a choice to find a career path before starting a family is, in my view, more of a self-actualized adult then the under-employed, unskilled 18 year old who gets married and starts a family. (And here is my disclaimer: not that being 18 and having a family is a bad thing, but these days I think it probably is a lot harder.)

And this isn’t just about women. Men too have more choices without the pressure to "settle down" and start a family and bring home the paycheck every week. Men and women alike are choosing to go back to graduate school not just “for lack of better options” (though the economy does really suck, and grad school isn’t a bad decision when the alternative means sitting around doing nothing in between your entry level retail job at The Gap) but because we will be more competive in the workforce, and thus have more choices with a graduate degree. And putting in the hard work and financial investment into college and graduate school is a very adult decision because it insures there will be choices.

And choices=security. And secure adults hopefully means secure families one day. And if that takes me ten years to work towards, I am entering my thirties a wiser person.

Instead of framing it like Henig does, “Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?” (she actually does write that) we need to celebrate our twentysomething years. I contend that twentysomethings are not “emerging adults” but should be more appropriately labeled “evolving adults.” The lessons learned during the twenties are lessons that previous generations of adults never had the CHOICE to learn.

Being given the option to learn these lessons on our own timeline, in the long run probably will make us more evolved adults then the generations that preceded us.

And though I’m destined to be one of those “forstalling” twentysomethings that doesn’t have kids until well into their 30s, I’ll proudly pass down the same sense of wonder, mixed with my decade-of-twentysomething-wisdom, to my kids and applaud them all along the way, just like my mom did for me.

29 years old and I have almost made it through the 20s: but not without my share of college drop-out semesters, 3 different colleges, many waitressing jobs, 3 different boyfriends, 3 times moving home with mom, 5 different cities of residence, 16 different apartments, and a head-first jump into grad school. I am the archetypal twentysomething. I turned out ok.

Adulthooders, what about you? Do you agree with Henig’s assessment of the lazy twentysomething crowd? How have you/did you survive in your twenties? Any and all thoughts on this subject are welcomed in the comments!

-Mara “Those Darn Kids Are So Noisy” Stringfield

Photo via Flickr by Dpstyles.


  1. Whooo boy. Where to start?

    My initial reaction while reading this entry and the article was honestly rage. The notion that I’m not on the “marriage, job, house, family” track to happiness due to some ingrained mental inability is ludicrous. I’d be on path like white on rice if my desires had any true control over my current situation, as you well know every time I talk to you about a job interview! So far, I spend my post-college days feverishly applying for jobs with 100 other applicants, or wallowing in depression because I absolutely hate where I’m at in life right now… but apparently, I should be busy attempting to “find myself?”

    I’m quite familiar with addressing a subject through the lens of a discipline or rule set in order to evaluate or critique; however it is truly absurd to approach a phenomenon that is so very deeply rooted in economic and societal trends with a myopic, psychological lens.

    Also, it feels like the professor is not-so-subtly shoehorning “serial dating” in with other indicators of emerging adulthood. If not getting married or having children is a sign of wanting to stave off adulthood… does that mean there are generations of gays and lesbians who never grew up? Was my friend who became a father at 16, married at 18, and divorced at 20 demonstrating more responsibility than me?

    To me, there was just so much wrong with Arnett’s assertions and Henig’s skewed phrasing, that I could spend days ranting about it. The traditional cycle has gone off course? Yes, but when? In the 1700s, women got married in their early teens… did it get off course when our society started waiting until adulthood? Did it go off course when handfasting went out of style? The death of dowries? Give me a break! Things change, people.

    And back around to my original reaction….rage. The idea that we’re competing for terrible jobs, and traveling anywhere there might be an opportunity is endemic of delaying adult life. My God, this columnist needs to come out of her ivory tower and see what life is like closer to the ground. In fact, I’d argue that these very actions are the marker of what it now unfortunately means to be an adult. If we ever want to escape the nest, we have to sacrifice many of our needs and comforts, and fight tooth and nail for jobs that don’t even pay a living wage.

  2. :: wild applause :: Great comment. I am right there with you. Would you consider guest blogging a reaction piece to this article too? This comment itself deserves a blog entry. I want to continue this discussion, and I think you have hit the nail on the head so many times (and in your many guest blogs on this topic!)

  3. Does anyone else think that trend stories like this are all kind of ridiculous? It just feels like they should maybe wait a while before they grossly generalize an entire generation. I always think that these things are better discussed afterwards.