What is it about 20-somethings?

2 Mar

What is it about 20-somethings?

This past August, while students of all ages were beginning to flood the malls and Staples in search of the perfect back to school outfit and binders, recent college graduates found themselves in a sort of limbo: for the first time in their lives, the coloring of the leaves did not signal the beginning of yet another year of papers, exams, and labs. It was just another turning of the seasons. However, for an increasing amount of 20-somethings, college graduation is no longer the impetus to find a job—any job—and leave their parents’ homes once and for all. The New York Times published this exposé on the 20-somethings to try and explain the moving-back-home phenomenon.

As with everything else, it’s easy to see how American culture is to blame for this delayed foray into adulthood. We’ve sanctified the childhood and adolescent years; it isn’t really until junior year of high school that many are forced to even start thinking about the future- and even then, it’s just college. Posters on classroom walls from K-12 remind its inhabitants to “reach for the stars,” “follow your dreams,” and “remember: the sky’s the limit.” It’s almost as though doing what one needs to do to be a functioning member of the adult world is no longer a worthy aspiration—well, worthy might be the wrong word. It’s no longer an aspiration for which we’re willing to settle. We want more. Which is good—but only if we’re willing to act upon this ambition and find it, rather than waiting for it to find us.

A few weeks ago, I was on a rush line getting tickets for ‘Anything Goes’ and I was talking to the woman in front of me. Her name was Dee, and she was in her late 50s/early 60s. As everyone does, she was asking me about college. After answering a few questions, she just shook her head and said, “Wow. Everything is just so much harder now.” She was the first person I had ever met who thought things had gotten more difficult with time.

Dee went on to talk about how when she began college (she went to Rutgers), there were so few options for women- you could be a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary. Period. Over the four years she was there, though, things loosened up enough for her to be a business major. “It’s just fabulous how many options you have for majors now,” she said, “but that just must be one of the reasons college is so much more expensive. I knew plenty of people who worked their way through college—public or private—and were able to pay it back within a reasonable time frame. There’s just no way you could do that now, if you could even find a job.” She went on to lament about how much more competitive everything was, because the applicants were getting more and more qualified—understandably, because they start training for everything so much earlier (one of my younger cousin’s friends is an 8-year-old gymnast who’s thinking to ‘retire’ at 13, after she graduates middle school. No one should be involved enough in ANYTHING at 8 to retire at 13).

Now, this is coming from a person who’s in college now, but I think Dee’s right. Across the board, from parents looking for babysitters, to restaurants looking for waitresses, to business moguls looking for accountants, everyone wants references, experience, and an impressive network. For example, this past summer I was still 17, so looking for a job was a legitimate nightmare. I tried restaurants because generally waitresses don’t have to adhere to the age guideline. I went to 6 or so restaurants, ranging from diners to ethnic eateries, and all of them wanted 1-3 years of waitressing experience. Because there are a handful of people who can meet those qualifications, businesses feel they can reasonably expect it. The bar isn’t too high so long as enough people can clear it.

So how is this all relevant? I think a lot of 20-somethings are finding themselves in this position—unemployable, both for being under and over qualified (whether at the hand of the economy or their own missteps, though, has yet to be determined). I have a family friend whose parents have decided that their 26-year-old is just too old to be living at home. For whatever reason, he’s been unemployed since his college graduation, save a few stints behind the counter at stores or delis. Their solution? Put him up in an apartment in town, teach him about living on his own. He’ll have to do his own laundry, grocery shopping, cleaning, and bills- on his parents’ dime, that is. It seems like a really bizarre concept, funding your child’s first leg of adulthood. And yet it seems like a win-win, doesn’t it? It cuts the cord while still making sure your child is provided for.

But it goes beyond that—it’s an increase in parental dependency in both directions. Once the helicopter parent has nothing left to circle, what’s left for him/her to do? It’s natural for parents to want to feel necessary in their kids lives, so they breed dependent children who can’t or won’t ever fully cut the cord (and just to clarify, “stay at home parent” DOES NOT necessarily translate to “helicopter parent.” Just to be clear). At any rate, it’s normal for parents to support their kids through college and even help them out a bit afterwards, but there comes a time, I feel, when “following your dreams” needs to be replaced with “doing what you need to do to get by.” It may not be the ideal job, but it’s a baby step; a way to insert yourself into the workforce in whatever way you can. Once in the workforce, it’s easier to make contacts, to create work ties that have the potential to lead one to a more desirable job.

The article discusses the possibility of a new psychological age phase- “emerging adulthood”— which begs the question: is it an age group worth creating? Or is it just a creation of those with the means to use that time to “find themselves” as opposed to getting their lives together? Arnett, the psychologist spear-heading the movement, claims it’s a stage for everyone; it’s a stage of possibility. He gives the example of Nicole, a self-starter who’s been taking care of her family since she was eight years old. For her, he says, “’emerging adulthood represents an opportunity — maybe a last opportunity — to turn one’s life around.’ This is the stage where someone like Nicole can escape an abusive or dysfunctional family and finally pursue her own dreams.” But can she? Her 20s may provide her with a sense of optimism that may diminish as she approaches “the 30 deadline,” but if she wants to have food to eat and a place to live, she sure as hell better not go join a band and experiment with boys and drugs as Arnett did for a bunch of years following college. For those without the cushion of daddy’s wallet, one’s 20s are still what they used to be—the time for one’s life to begin. “Emerging adulthood” as a phase is much like a private college education to a degree—it’s nice to have, but not vital.

I don’t understand what’s so scary about being in your 20s. As a good friend of mine once said, “unless you amputate your arm, nothing is permanent.” This friend in particular graduated college, worked in television for two or three years, and then decided she’d rather become a teacher. So she did. And now, still not yet 30, she’s had two legitimate careers and discerned which one she actually liked and wanted to pursue. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll see it differently once I’m actually IN my 20s. I guess my point is that if you wait until your 30s or even your late 20s to start seriously thinking about a career, you’re setting yourself up to be significantly behind the curve, age-wise and, proportionally, experience-wise should you ever change your mind. Moreover, as the article states, having any job instigates momentum to continue on an upward career path.

The article quotes two 20-somethings who wrote in Arnett’s “20-something manifesto:” “It’s somewhat terrifying,” writes a 25-year-old named Jennifer, “to think about all the things I’m supposed to be doing in order to ‘get somewhere’ successful: ‘Follow your passions, live your dreams, take risks, network with the right people, find mentors, be financially responsible, volunteer, work, think about or go to grad school, fall in love and maintain personal well-being, mental health and nutrition.’ When is there time to just be and enjoy?” Adds a 24-year-old from Virginia: “There is pressure to make decisions that will form the foundation for the rest of your life in your 20s. It’s almost as if having a range of limited options would be easier.”

The more times I read it over, the angrier I get (as my roommate can attest)—yes, we do, in fact, expect you to be a functional person. Why shouldn’t we? Since when did one’s 20s become an expansion of (Americanized) adolescence- a time to have fun and “find yourself?” Obviously I’m not saying that every single 20-something should own a house and a car and be halfway to a husband and child, but I don’t see why Jennifer and Virginia-person find it so unreasonable for society to expect them to begin to act like functional adults. And as for Virginia’s claim about having “too many” options, that’s bullshit. At least where I’m from, one of the most popular complaints is the lack of options: the lack of options in the course catalogue, the lack of college major options, the lack of extra-curricular options, the lack of socially acceptable career options. Giving a limited range of options would be moving back in time, especially for women, who fought so hard to get these options in the first place. Removing options would simply create a new gripe: that society isn’t allowing “emerging adults” to ‘be who they want to be,’ and is instead forcing them into a mold.

Finally, Arnett kind of backs out of his own point a bit at the end: he says that not every country’s 20s population goes through “emerging adulthood;” “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.” In saying so, doesn’t that prove that this phase is a social construct created to allow our children a few more years of fun and freedom before “forcing” them to settle down? It seems that every pre-30s stage has the potential to be “the best years of our lives,” and in creating this “emerging adulthood stage,” we’re essentially making the 20s an extension of adolescence—another 8-10 years to play, to find one’s self, to do things for fun.

And yet I have to ask: where did this entitlement come from? When was it decided that adolescents/”emerging adults” should receive the privilege of a lesser culpability for their actions? When we became willing to cater to them. As to why, I don’t know (as an adolescent, I’m hardly complaining, but still, I have to wonder). Car companies and psychologists alike have decided that 25 is about the time when one’s brain is fully formed, so perhaps the 30-deadline should be pushed back a few years to match. Ultimately, I think it’s a combination of a fear of failure and our willingness to cater to changing milestone markers that’s holding the 20-somethings back. We’ve been so conditioned to shoot for the moon that it’s a kick to our own pride to settle for anything closer to earth. And if mom and dad are willing to support us until we find our dream job, why shouldn’t we let them? This may seem like a rant on rich people, but it’s really not. It’s a rant on those who are choosing not to accept the responsibilities that comes with the privileges of growing up.

Which leads me to my final question: is this delayed beginning to real life a legitimate problem? And if it is, what’s the solution: to forbid our 20-somethings the comforts of home, hoping that the necessity to find a job and fund shelter and food will ignite their ambition? Or to give them ample time to find their way? At this point in my life, I’m not sure I can have a valid opinion—I am, after all, still a student, who isn’t forced to find my footing just yet.. However, I do think there’s a point in time where parents do need to pull the plug on being a permanent primary place of residence. As the old saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention.” If 20-somethings are told and shown that it’s no longer acceptable to act 18, they’ll have to forage onward. It won’t be easy, and, means depending, parents should absolutely be there for their children to catch them if/when they falter, but it’s important for all of us to start feeling the proverbial “30-deadline” before we become that awkward 29-year-old still living at home, just because we can.


2 Responses to “What is it about 20-somethings?”

  1. allyson March 7, 2011 at 12:58 pm #

    My main problem with this is the problem I have with almost all NY Times articles, which is that it seems to suggest that all families can support their 20 something children, and that its somehow expected that these kids will have the funds and resources available to just dick around for a few years following college. The fact remains that a very small portion of the population can actually afford to enjoy this “emerging adulthood” stage.


  1. Where Work is a Religion, Work Burnout is its Crisis of Faith « I've got time to kill until my life becomes more real - March 18, 2011

    […] how is burnout different from boredom? And is it like “emerging adulthood,” a disease of the privileged, communicable only to those with the funds to abruptly end […]

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