Where Are All the Grownups?

By Susan McWilliams for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

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.

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