Where Are All the Grownups?

by Susan McWilliams on August 31, 2010 · 15 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low

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Claremont, CA. The cover of last week’s New York Times Magazine asked: “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” We should be considering that question, author Robin Marantz Henig writes, because there is a growing incidence of youngish adults who “move back in with their parents,” “delay beginning career paths,” and “put off commitments” – who, in short, seem to be stuck in a period of extended adolescence.

This is not news to those of us who spend a lot of time around 20-somethings, those of us who were recently 20-somethings, and those of us who are still ensconced in that decade of life. It’s a question that I’ve heard friends and former students ponder with some regularity: Why is it taking so long for Americans to become “real” grown-ups?

Sadly, the Times article gets caught up in the rather dubious assertions of research psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, who wants to claim that this extended adolescence – he calls it “emerging adulthood” – actually represents a natural “life stage,” though passing through the stage is neither universal nor necessary, and thus does not seem to meet even the most generous definition of what counts as part of our human nature.

Although the article mentions scientific evidence that your brain continues to change throughout your 20s, which some have taken as “proof” of a biological basis for extended adolescence, it overlooks the obvious dimension in which extended adolescence does not accord with our biology: reproduction.  As numerous studies have suggested, the increasing numbers of women who put off trying to have children until their mid-30s or later “worsen their chances of becoming pregnant—and risk losing out on motherhood altogether.” Even though Hollywood offers us lots of stories about celebrities who get pregnant in their 40s, female fertility starts to decline at around age 30, meaning that expensive technologies are often behind those high-profile births. It seems hard to argue that decades of birth-control use followed by desperate attempts to get pregnant followed by a painful spate of IVF treatment (which is less than 10% successful for women over 40) clearly represents the female body’s “natural” biological course.

In any case, in all of its attention to this single theory, the Times Magazine article fails to spend enough time considering questions of the most immediate social and political relevance: How do we understand this cohort of Americans? How did they get here?

Those questions become even more interesting if you consider how unlikely this outcome might have seemed a decade ago. Consider the other great journalistic piece written about this generation of Americans: David Brooks’ “The Organization Kid,” which appeared in The Atlantic back in April of 2001. There, Brooks described a generation of elite college students – today’s late 20-somethings – who “work their laptops to the bone, rarely question authority, and happily accept their positions at the top of the heap as part of the natural order of life.” Brooks described a generation of young people who were not just eager to become grownups but were in some ways already grownups: “goal-oriented,” willing to take on substantial responsibilities, and possessing a “calm acceptance of established order.”

Juxtaposing that article with last Sunday’s offering in the Times Magazine, you have to wonder: What happened to all those Organization Kids, to land them in this “Post-Adolescent, Pre-Adult, Not-Quite-Decided Stage” nine years later? Are these even the same people? On the surface they seem to be made of quite different stuff.

The first possibility to consider is that one (or both) of these articles simply isn’t true. Each has its faults. Brooks’ piece includes some obvious overstatements and selection biases, and last week’s Times Magazine piece has a scattershot approach. (It should go without saying, too, that both pieces devote most of their energy to the study of relatively privileged Americans.)

But on the whole, both pieces have been widely distributed, suggesting that they that they rang (or ring) true to their readers. Both pieces, I think it is fair to say, touched a cultural nerve at the moment of their publication. And my own experiences confirm the picture each article paints: I was a graduate student at Princeton in 2001, when Brooks wrote “The Organization Kid” about the lives of its undergraduates, and his assessment more-or-less accorded with my own perception of things. Today, the many 20-somethings I count among my friends and former students tend to fit the patterns of behavior discussed in the Times article. Despite their limitations, then, I think it is reasonable to trust the general observations each article makes.

It’s also possible that Organization Kids became Extended Adolescents due to economic forces largely outside their control. That is, Organization Kids weren’t bound to become Extended Adolescents; an external economic shock changed them profoundly during the last 10 years.

There is undoubtedly some truth here. When Brooks spent time with Princeton undergraduates in 2001, they were facing “the sweetest job market in the nation’s history,” and each student he met “felt confident that he or she could get a good job after graduation.” Needless to say, the job market feels different to everyone today, and it’s not hard to imagine the many structural reasons that lots of those go-getting, would-be consultants and bankers might have changed their plans, or had their plans dashed, or moved back in with mom and dad, or ended up applying to law school, thereby extending their financial dependency.

In 2001, Brooks did notice that Princeton students worked hard in large part because of their expectations of advancement, that they were not bolstered by “some Puritan work ethic deep in their cultural memory.” Looking back now, it seems clear that these were students who had not learned, through experience or education, the truth that tides do not always rise and fortunes do not always accrue. Such students aspired to adulthood under certain terms (of perpetual growth, constant opportunity, and increasing reward); absent the continued existence of those terms, it may be that they had little independent reason – or had been given little independent reason – to value the dedicated pursuit of a “grown-up” life.

Even so, the external-shock explanation only goes so far. For one thing, at least for elite college graduates, employment is not as difficult to procure as most national-level statistics suggest. The job market for college grads – even graduates of schools not as fancy as Princeton – is much better than the job market as a whole. At the most select schools, career prospects remain strong; a survey at my own Pomona College shows that about half of our 2010 graduates had received offers of full-time employment before they had even graduated. There has been an economic shock to this population, to be sure, but not an entirely earth-shattering one. Even if the current state of the economy has exacerbated the extension of adolescence or explains it in part, it is not the whole story.

Indeed, nine years ago Brooks gave us reasons to suspect that there are more than external or economic forces at play in the transition from Organization Kid to Extended Adolescent. He saw characteristics in those apparently go-getting college students that at the time seemed to put them on the fast track to early adulthood, but may in fact have propelled them right back into their parents’ fold and into a delayed adulthood.

While the Organization Kids were highly ambitious, they weren’t particularly daring; Brooks was surprised by how “safety-conscious” and risk-averse those college students were. It would make sense that risk-averse people would, on the whole, be reluctant to make major life changes – to strike out on their own, to commit to a career path or a spouse, or to have children – that are inherently risky or non-reversible propositions. (Risk-averse people make good test-takers, and they often perform well as students, but they are less likely to thrive when they are asked to take on the less-structured roles of citizen, grown-up, and leader.)

Some of that risk-avoidant behavior surely owes to a phenomenon mentioned in both “The Organization Kid” and “The Post-Adolescent, Pre-Adult, Not-Quite-Decided Life Stage,” the phenomenon we tend to call “helicopter parenting.” We all know what this means: various studies have documented a decline in the amount of “risky play,” like climbing trees and playing tag, allowed by parents, and “unsupervised play” is also out-of-fashion, particularly among wealthier Americans. Brooks described the Organization Kids as students who had been “structured, supervised, and stuffed with enrichment” by other people for their whole lives. Not much has changed ten years later, it seems, as the parents of the Extended Adolescent “keep hovering and problem-solving long past the time when their children should be solving problems on their own.”

Recent technologies are somewhat to blame for all this hovering; cell phones and the Internet, by allowing for constant communication, enable a kind of anxious connection between parents and children. The scale of our society, too, bears some responsibility here; who can blame parents for being more worried about their children when the nation they inhabit seems so big, so contentious, and so unforgiving?

Still, I think of Alexis de Tocqueville’s description of the education of young women in 1830s America. Tocqueville was impressed by the fact that Americans thought young women should be educated for more than domestic life. The reason for that, Tocqueville writes, was that Americans realized they lived in a world of rapid change, vast scale, and great danger, and they had the best way to prepare their daughters for that world was to teach them about – and expose them to – its vices and temptations. In the face of a big and scary country, they encouraged a certain kind of exposure to risk with the idea that it would strengthen our children in the end, while we perceive risk and run in the opposite direction.

Of course, those earlier Americans were much more accustomed to human death than we are. Then, death was not consigned to nursing homes and freak accidents, the way it is in the lives of so many Americans today. There were then better-defined rituals for grieving and loss and mourning, sustained by community and religious tradition. In such a context, as others have said, death and mortality hold less raw terror than they do in a society such as ours, in which avoidance and even denial of death are commonplace.

I don’t mean to suggest that those Americans of the 1830s were all throwing their kids into the Reaper’s arms. But it does seem that they were more comfortable than we are with the fact that all parents and children someday part, and as a result they raised their children differently than do we. Those Americans of Tocqueville’s time, that is, were in some ways more in touch with the reality of human embodiedness, with human mortality – with human biology.

In the end, then, maybe the phenomenon of 20-somethings who are delaying adulthood does have something to do with biology: our cultural denial and dismissal of our embodiedness. We deny certain truths about reproduction and birth on one hand, and certain truths about death on the other. That denial is as in evidence in the Times Magazine piece as it is in the lives of the 20-somethings it discusses.

Back in 2001, in the first and most telling paragraphs of his article, Brooks mentioned in passing that the Princeton students he met were already well-ensconced in the habit of putting their “biological necessities” on a back burner. They told him they were planning to wait to have “real relationships” until after their careers were settled, at some undetermined point in the future. The seeds of extended adolescence, it’s clear, were well-sown before any of these people had turned 20.

At the time, Brooks used the language of “character” to describe what he found lacking in the Princeton student body. That language isn’t bad, although it risks suggesting that there is a problem in the character of a particular generation of students or 20-somethings (or “those kids today”), when it seems clear to me that the problem lies in a national character, in this nation where we are obsessed with time-saving devices even as we deny the big-picture ways in which all of our time – to be kids, to be grown-ups, to be ourselves – is limited.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Peter B. Nelson August 31, 2010 at 8:23 am

I had my first child at age 40, and even at that late age she brought me a big dollop of maturation. It’s not that twenty-somethings aren’t having kids through immaturity, it’s rather that they are immature because they aren’t having kids. In our eagerness to enshrine every facet of the sexual revolution, we twist ourselves into knots to avoid seeing the obvious.

avatar David August 31, 2010 at 10:16 am

Maturity is a complex formula and bias selectors can definitely corrupt any quantitative analysis.

I have friends who appear mature because they are making all the accepted choices in life; however, such a pattern reflects their submission to the pervasive anti-culture of the suburbs of southern California. At best I can say in their defense that they are as a group better at delaying gratification than others, even myself (this is a particular weakness in my own maturity).

Whereas I have spent a lifetime being impulsive and so setting a habit who’s cycle is hard to break on the best of days. So even as I draw near to 40 I still gauge my own steadfastness in terms of the days I can stay on my diet.

I see some who can delay for years buying a house and then buy much more house than they need. I did not delay but bought much more responsibly.

One fellow lived with several different friends (sometimes renting a room, sometimes just as an extended “guest”) but spent a great deal of time serving the least of these in neighborhoods most folks wouldn’t even enter. He was sort of a mooch and sort of a saint. Is he mature?

I do think folks are wimps, including myself. It’s a strange thing to say, but it’s true. I have weathered storms in my life that would shatter other people, yet for all the strength God exhibited in my life (and it must have been His work) I have a hard time not buying something I want until my next pay check.

avatar Thomas August 31, 2010 at 12:17 pm

I recently read Escaping the ‘Endless Adolescence: How We Can Help Our Teenagers Grow Up Before They Grow Old’ (http://www.amazon.com/Escaping-Endless-Adolescence-Teenagers-Before/dp/0345507894).

A couple of my favorite quotes from the book:

“…he would have noticed that adolescents’ disturbing behavior had been increasing pretty much in direct proportion to the progress of the industrial revolution and the rise of compulsory education…”

“Yet we take teenagers at the height of their energy levels, individuals who crave stimulation and excitement, individuals with the capacity for tremendous amounts of physical activity…, and ask them to do almost nothing. Yes, we place demands on them, but the demands mostly involve enforced passivity and relatively meaningless tasks.”

avatar Alicia August 31, 2010 at 1:56 pm

I think it is having true responsibility for others’ well-being that can make us mature. I know of young military people who are very mature because of the responsibility and seriousness of the consequences of their actions. I know that I started to really understand the cost of things at 19 when I became responsible for groups of retreatants in Rome. But nothing has helped me grow and appreciate the value of things and the importance of community more than having my own children. After 11 years and six children, I feel that at age 37 I am a responsible adult. All these little people absolutely depending on the choices I make helps make one grow up!

avatar G. Koefoed September 1, 2010 at 9:58 am

A very good piece and such an interesting phenomenon. There are a lot of factors playing into this, but my observations boil them down to the following:

1. Vocational: In a culture of helicopter parents and endless enrichment, people simply have a hard time choosing a vocation. Children are constantly told “you can be anything you want to be” and they are running around college with the inability to carefully weigh the pros and cons of a profession (vocation is actually the wrong word because our society has no idea what vocation means). No one told them that financial remuneration, the importance of your work to others, feeling good about yourself, and the hours required are all factors that come into the decision and don’t work out neatly. I have students who assume that they will be able to work for an NGO in Africa, raise a nice family, and make as much money as their lawyer/doctor parents who sent them to a nice private college, and I have others who are surprised when the inner city kids they want to “help” aren’t really interested in that help. Needless to say, when they realize this it kicks them into several years of consternation after college as they try to figure out why they can’t find a job that gives them everything they’d like. This was a common problem for well-to-do American Victorians in the late nineteenth century as well – William James being a notable example. James turned his experiences into an entire philosophy, here’s to hoping the current generation can understand their dilemma.

2. Financial: Parents simply don’t prepare their kids for financial reality. It is human nature to get away with what you can, and in my experience parents are paying for kids cell-phones, car insurance, car payments, plane tickets home, and numerous other things throughout kids twenties! Some of these kids even have decent jobs. I rarely meet people whose parents taught them about money while they were at home, made them literally pay for their mistakes, and taught them the honor and dignity that comes with fully taking care of oneself. Thus, the choices my friends make are done with the knowledge mom and dad will bail them out (aka they just move home after the trip to Europe they couldn’t afford if they were paying for their own car, phone, etc.). There is a direct and inverse correlation in all the people I’ve met: if their parents taught them about money when they were young they never seem to fall into extended adolescence…funny how that works.

3. Relational: This is simply the “The Culture of Atomic Eros” (to quote another author on this site) and judging from the comments by many people on this site I think most people agree on this one. Sometimes people are hell bent on maintaining their sexually atomistic existence, and sometimes as Brooks suggests they don’t commit to another person because (as per my first point) they have to maintain their illusion of limitless vocational opportunities. To be fair to my generation though, I think they are simply overwhelmed. Gregory Dart points this out in his book on Unrequited Love. Just as in their vocation, people have been sold a bill of goods on what true/perfect love looks like; like their vocation, they simply have unrealistic expectations. In addition, the choices for spouses in a jet-setting culture are limitless! The sociologist Peter Berger points out that choice is the defining characteristic of modernity, and like my struggle to choose from 30 different pasta sauces in the grocery store, people with unrealistic expectations of perfect love struggle desperately to find the perfect spouse. Hence, you are left with a string of broken relationships, move-ins and move-outs, zero children, and a scarred emotional landscape unsuitable for maturity.

avatar Artie September 1, 2010 at 10:37 am

It seems only natural that individuals would tend to take longer to mature in a culture where growth, longevity and diversity are so highly valued. When life expectancy was 60 years, as it was not that long ago, there were far fewer occupations and vocations to choose from and the impetus to commit to a way of life came much sooner.

Today we are immersed in choices, overwhelmed with information. If we were to stay on our current trajectory of growth – economic, media and population – I suspect that the length of the “extended adolescence” would continue to grow, tracking the GDP and the amount of electronic media consumed. I also suspect a natural limit to growth that will eventually return us to a shorter adolescence.

avatar D.W. Sabin September 1, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Brooks, our panglossian chronicler of the “Established Order” wrote that first piece a few months before 9/11/01. He wrote it for the Atlantic and as he usually does, he gave all the prosperously liberal readers of the Atlantic something to beam over their little darlings about. What Brooks always seems to miss is that his notions of an “Established Order” in the United States of America are in flux and quite possibly , the order is going to be eclipsed by disorder because the Great Global Grabass he cheers for has invited all manner of dysfunction on this preternaturally regressed America.

9/01 and 9/08 were a left-right punch that has pitched us into a state of fidgeting confusion. Funny enough, maturation is going to be thrust on everyone now, unlike the halcyon decades during which Brooks was elevated into the position as the “conservative” liberals like”. This same time period entrenched a marked juvenilization of the culture, hence the gullibility of his many admirers in the popular culture.

The Times, an expert in conveying pat conventional pieties gave us one of its typical magazine articles , aimed at the forlorn parents of children who have re-entered the nest or are in a subsidized apartment in some hipster neighborhood. Why anyone would find it significantly newsworthy that the young just out of college are a little un-focused in the worst job market in decades is beyond me but then, anyone who expects to get any comprehensive reporting from the Main Stream Media on the fundamental dysfunctions of our whipsawed debtors culture is in for chronic disappointment.

avatar Kevin J Jones September 1, 2010 at 9:30 pm

It’s helpful to break down “delaying childbearing” into the more specific. It is in fact the rejection of fatherhood and motherhood. There are very few structured ways to teach young people to be fathers and mothers anymore. Vague exhortations to “parenting” and television shows about delusional “father-optional” lifestyles don’t help young people.

Youth are indeed wary of fitting into pre-established roles, but part of that wariness arises from the unwillingness of the broader culture to establish and defend these roles. Fatherhood specifically is also a lot more risky in a divorce culture, so risk aversion is justified.

avatar Peter B. Nelson September 1, 2010 at 9:50 pm

Kevin, good point.

avatar Sam M September 2, 2010 at 8:56 am

Where have all the grown-ups gone? My response would be, where were they ever?

My grandfather fought in World War I, came to the US as an immigrant afterwards, and worked in a tannery his whole life. A real grown-up kind of guy. He also believed in his heart and soul that professional wrestling was real, and regularly attended live events to fling pencils at villians like George the Animal Steel, in hopes of goading them into a violent confrontation.

I know. A simple anecdote. But that’s all these reports are. I might point you to the example of, say, Hank Greenburg, a phenomenal baseball player who pales in comparison only to the likes of Ted Williams. And even then only barely. He was named MVP of the AL one year but did not make the All Star Team because he was Jewish. The baseball brass figured their audience (young men) would not be able to handle a Jew beating out a non-Jew. And they were probably right. He made the All Star Team a few years later but he never got off the bench. He later became a widely recognized pillar of sportsmanship and grace, but not before overcoming this kind of public buffoonery.

Again, anecdote. But if that’s what we are working with, I would submit that all generations have their hang-ups. Some drink three martinis at lunch. Some drive drunk. Some beat their wives. Some shroud entire regions in toxic smog. If this generation’s young men do nothing worse then live at home until they are less young, I’d say they compare pretty well to many other generations.

Kids these days. Pretty good, actually.

avatar J. W. Blakely September 2, 2010 at 11:10 am

I agree with some of the points here, but as a 20-something atheist convert to Catholicism, I think the heart of the matter concerning the problem with the NY Times piece has still not been made clear.

We are given “five milestones” by The New York Times that mark the full transformation from child to adult: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child.

But consider this: by the first criteria (finishing school) Winston Churchill would be a dubious candidate for adulthood, by the last three (financial independence, marrying and children) Mother Teresa would be excluded, and by the second (leaving home) none of the entire line of the English monarchy ever grew up.

See my fuller rebuttal of the NY Times piece here:
http://catholic-commentary.com/2010/08/18/giving-up-childish-ways/

avatar Chuck September 2, 2010 at 12:23 pm

There is a presupposition in this article that “maturity” is of value. But what if it is of no value? What if it is just someone sitting at a computer telling other people how to live? Why should they be mature? Why should they listen at all?

avatar D. Hall September 2, 2010 at 3:01 pm

I am a 23-year-old who lives with his parents. I graduated from a top 10 engineering program with honors a year ago, and can’t find work. I’ve had numerous interviews, impressed recruiters (by their own admission), and had exactly zero offers of employment. The problem? Jobs for which I’m qualified are going to other engineers with 2-5 years of work experience who have been laid off from other jobs.

I can’t answer for my entire generation, but among my own circle I don’t know anyone who is living with his parents who wants to be in that situation.

I’ve conceded the necessity of some number of years of working in the corporate world in order to raise the money I’ll need to buy a farm and settle down to my life’s work, my vocation, in the most literal, “calling” sense of the word. I regret this necessity, but I see no other option. There is no family land for me to inherit, and I have no private means of my own.

For the time being, then, my employment is searching for employment. It’s a full-time job, involving travel for interviews and endless phone calls and e-mails, but it is not paid work, and landlords and utilities expect their cut every month, whereas my parents, mercifully, do not.

avatar Mary September 3, 2010 at 10:39 am

I’ve noted that 20-somethings have trouble accepting wrongdoing. When confronted for something that they’ve done wrong, they attack the messenger. Their inability to accept criticism probably has something to do with a permissive environment that attempts to stroke their esteem rather than make them proud of achievements rightfully earned. What will these over-grown infants do when they get in the workforce and are criticized by their bosses? Look for more instances of violence in the workplace, as over-grown infants seek revenge for being “dissed.”

Someone should have told them that respect is earned, not granted.

avatar JonF September 12, 2010 at 3:37 pm

It’s incredible that there’s no mention of the very obvious reason 20-something do not settle down: money.
Back when a young man could graduate high school and (after perhaps a two year stint in the army) obtain a decent-paying and moderately secure job with opportunity for income growth, 20-year olds could be expected to get settle down, get married and have children.
Those days are gone.

As for biology, Nature thinks it’s just fine for humans to have children at 14. whidh is not a good idea and never has been. Even 2300 years ago Aristotle (with a physician’s experience) advised men and women to wait until they were out of their teens to marry and have children. Nature is not always perfect or wise.

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