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Archive for the ‘Millenials’ Category

Last week, I attended an alumni/student networking event at my alma mater, UC Santa Barbara. The event consisted of about 50 working professionals (I was in this camp), and 100 soon-to-be-grads, sniffing around for some intel on what the “real world” might have in store. The kids (umm – ouch — you know you’re getting older when you start referring to 20-ish-year-olds as “kids”) had been given bios on all us pros, and we were wearing nametags, so there was nowhere to hide. Many of them had seen the title of my book, and wanted my advice. On the small matter of what to do with their lives. Gulp.

(And, let it be said: these are not the lost souls – the organizers maxed the event out, early, at 100 students, so these were the sorts of students who’d actually jumped on the chance to attend a “networking event,” something which, to be perfectly honest, would never have occurred to me while I was in college. Of course, I majored in Religious Studies and Anthropology, so career prospects weren’t exactly my primary motivators.)

Anyway. They wanted to know what to do, how to reach their goals. (I want to be a political speech writer! An oncologist! A professor! Or the–judging by body language alone–shameful: I don’t know what to do with my life! But I’ve done this, this, and this already, so whatever I do has to be good.) Big dreams!  Huge ambitions! And they all seemed a bit like deer in the headlights. A feeling which, I told them, I remember exactly. (College graduation day: shudder. Nowhere as fun as its cracked up to be.) But, I said, what I’ve learned in my own life, and what the research we did for the book proves is this: don’t sweat it. You will have many (many!) jobs in your professional life. You will move. You will have different friends, different titles. You’ll play different roles. The parameters of your “family” will shift. Your priorities will shift.

They looked at me with expressions I can only describe as some mixture of relief and something akin to the face you’d make had I told you to become a mermaid.

But, I get it. Even now, with more job titles than I know what to do with (author, speaker, writer, coach, editor), I understand that ambition. Because I am ambitious. Extremely so. I often describe it as just a part of who I am – as fundamental to me as the fact that I do not like Chinese food, that I am a total grouch if I have no exercise in the morning, and that I’d rather spend a Sunday on the couch reading the paper than doing nearly anything else.  And I’m cool with that.

But this ambition thing. It’s tricky. Difficult to parse how much is fundamental to me, and how much is some sort of weird internalization of the cultural messaging that swirls around all of us, so thick as to be the very air we breathe. The water we swim in.

I got to thinking about it, more than usual, when I read Meghan Daum’s piece about the (most) recent Mommy War flare-up, over Hilary Rosen’s words about Ann Romney:

A lot of this, of course, is the usual bluster of an election season, the tempests that get brewed up in campaign teapots, only to subside as quickly as they erupted. But this latest storm points not only to Americans’ seemingly endless appetite for flimsy controversy but to the incredible sensitivity we have around the issue of work.

To put it bluntly, we’re obsessed with work — with who’s doing it and not doing it, with how many hours are being spent at it and how much money is being paid for it. And we’re not just obsessed in the sense that we rely on work to survive (and, these days, are suffering for lack of it). We’re obsessed with work because our identities are defined by it. We work, therefore we are.

Case in point: the way the formerly quotidian institution known as “parenthood” has lately seen its job description ratcheted up to include not just age-old duties like the feeding, clothing and chauffeuring of children but, in some circles, a downright competitive approach to co-sleeping, organic food shopping, baby sign-language teaching, protracted breast-feeding and sometimes even home schooling. With our self-worth so intrinsically connected to our professional status, we’ve extended the values of corporate ladder climbing on to family life. And some mothers, in the process of taking charge of the home front — or sometimes letting their children take charge — have imposed a greater tyranny on themselves than their office supervisors ever did.

Strikes a cord, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s just a tic of human beings: we have to be able to define ourselves. A job is convenient for this purpose. So is a role. As we’ve often written, where once women defined themselves strictly in terms of their relationships to others (daughter, sister, wife, mother), now we define ourselves in terms of our work. And, hey – work’s (relatively) new to us, and it’s fun! And if what we do with our time–our work–is taking care of others, goddamnit, we’re gonna do it perfectly. If we can prove that we’re doing something well–or even if we just have the title to imply that we are–then we matter. We’re worthwhile.

And that’s all fine, to a certain extent: there’s value in doing good work, and there’s value in being a good fill-in-the-blank to someone else. But we are not our roles. And we are not our resumes. And if that leaves you wondering what’s left, well, you’re certainly not alone.

But really: wouldn’t it be more fun if we could somehow loosen the grip of the grand title, the grand role, the grand image, and just be? To try things out, and then if things don’t go as planned, to simply change course, and see what’s around the next bend? To decide that what matters is not what we achieve or how perfectly we achieve it, but that we’ve allowed ourselves to be who we are, and gotten to like her?

Seems to me, that’s a goal worthy of some of my own ambition. And hey, if it doesn’t work out, there’s always grad school.

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Everyone else seems to be. They’re talking about women and sex and “Girls” and sex and feminism and sex and HBO and sex and the sexual revolution as failure and the sexual revolution as success.

It feels a little weird to be writing this, honestly, being that it’s 2012 and all. But with whom and where and how and how often women are doing it remains a hot topic. As it should. Sex, after all, is hot. And our sex lives are as integral to who we are as our professional lives — and collectively, every bit as much of a barometer as to what’s going on with women as salary surveys and graduation rates and polls about who’s doing the housework.

Of course, as is generally the case in discussions about women, women and our changing place in the world, and/or women and sex, there lurks just the faintest whiff of  judgment. In a piece entitled “The Bleaker Sex” in Sunday’s New York Times, Frank Bruni takes to the Opinion pages with his thoughts on Lena Dunham’s upcoming HBO series “Girls”:

The first time you see Lena Dunham’s character having sex in the new HBO series “Girls,” her back is to her boyfriend, who seems to regard her as an inconveniently loquacious halfway point between partner and prop, and her concern is whether she’s correctly following instructions…

You watch these scenes and other examples of the zeitgeist-y, early-20s heroines of “Girls” engaging in, recoiling from, mulling and mourning sex, and you think: Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this? Salaries may be better than in decades past and the cabinet and Congress less choked with testosterone. But in the bedroom? What’s happening there remains something of a muddle, if not something of a mess…

In a recent interview, presented in more detail on my Times blog, she told me that various cultural cues exhort her and her female peers to approach sex in an ostensibly ‘empowered’ way that she couldn’t quite manage. “I heard so many of my friends saying, ‘Why can’t I have sex and feel nothing?’ It was amazing: that this was the new goal.”

First, not so fast, Bruni: while salaries may be better and Congress less choked, the numbers are still far from impressive. While clearly we have made progress on those fronts, I challenge anyone to make the case the work’s been done, equality achieved. The numbers certainly indicate otherwise, as we’ve pointed out from time to time.

Now to the sex: While yes, I’ll give you that sexual scenes painted in this and other previews of “Girls” (I haven’t seen it; the show premieres on April 15) do indeed indicate a bit of a muddle, if not a mess, I don’t see that as problematic. On the contrary: I’d argue said muddle makes perfect sense. And I’ll raise you one: I think said muddle is an apt metaphor for what women are going through in every realm.

Women today are raised on empowering messages: from the time we’re little, we’re told girls can do anything boys can do. (As we should be.) We come of age in the relatively safe, comfortable confines of school, believing in this message and in its natural conclusion–that feminism‘s work if over, its battles won. So too do we believe in the natural conclusion of that other message–that “girls can do anything boys can do” also means that we should do things the way they do.

And then, buoyed by the beliefs that feminism is old news and that men and women are not only equal but basically the same, we smack up against the realities of the real world: the judgments, the biases, the roles that don’t fit, the obstacles to changing them. The inequities. The shoulds. And we think there must be something wrong with us–that we’re alone in the muddle. When the reality is that the world still has not caught up to the messaging we’re fed, nor does the messaging necessarily have it right. Women are wandering uncharted territory. And, without a map, everything looks a muddle. We’re feeling our way through.

As Hanna Rosin wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal,

The lingering ambivalence about sexuality is linked, I think, to women’s lingering ambivalence about the confusing array of identities available to them in modern life.

Exactly (and I’m not just saying that cuz I wrote an entire book about it). The doors have opened, but the trails have yet to be cleared.

And then, of course, there’s this (I can only imagine the backlash I’m gonna take for this one, but I’m gonna say it anyway, because I make the point often in the context of work): women and men are different. There’s neurobiology and all kinds of research to support this idea–and yet, it’s an idea that’s traditionally been seen as dangerous. And it’s seen as most dangerous by women: the worry being that to say that men and women are different, we do things differently, we experience things differently, must necessarily mean that one way is better, one’s worse. As though to claim a difference would be to set us off on a slippery slope of regression, inevitably sliding right back onto Betty Draper’s miserable, unempowered couch. Or as though to recognize a difference is to divide everyone into two overly simplified extremes, opposite ends of a spectrum–men are dogs and women just want to be monogamous. People are too complex for generalizations (generally speaking). So I guess my real question is this: Why is sex without feeling anything the goal? What exactly are we aspiring to there? Who decided that’s what empowerment looks like?

I mean, isn’t feeling something kind of the fun of sex?

And back to those messages: isn’t it ironic that women today are raised on the message that it is their right (hell, their responsibility) to (enthusiastically!) embrace their sexuality–and that one’s sexuality is indeed one’s own for the embracing–even while this very notion is again (still!) under attack? Not only is our sexual and reproductive freedom–the freedom to express our sexuality outside the confines of marriage without threat of banishment (let alone death by stoning, a freedom not shared by many women walking the earth) or biology–staggeringly new, it’s tenuous. Something we’re raised to take as a given is something that still needs fierce defending. Every step we take, we battle anew.

It’s tempting to buy into the idea that the fight is over, as tempting as it is to put a cheery, tidy spin on what came before. In that piece of Rosin’s that I mentioned earlier, she refers to the success of the sexual revolution, attributing it to, among others, “sex goddess Erica Jong.” Jong penned a response at The Daily Beast, which she kicked off with a quick anecdote and the line, “That was the way we weren’t.” Here’s a bit from her piece:

Of course I was delighted to be called a sex-goddess and bracketed with Dr. Ruth Westheiner, whom I adore, but when Rosin said the ’70s were all about the sexual revolution and that the sexual revolution was one of the props of women’s current success, I felt a chill run down my spine. ‘Dear Hanna-you just don’t get it,’ I wanted to say. ‘If only you’d lived through some of the things I have–being trashed as the happy hooker of literature, being overlooked for professorships, prizes, and front-page reviews because it was assumed I was–’tis a pity–a whore, you might see things differently. And then, if having lived through that, the pundits now said you were rather tame, you might wonder whether women could ever be seen for what we are: sexual and intellectual, sweet and bitter, smart and sexy. But I am grateful to be a sex goddess all the same.’

…As a young and even middle-aged writer, I used to attend pro-choice rallies with GOP women. No more. Will my daughter’s generation now believe that feminism, like democracy, has to be fought for over and over again? We cannot be complacent about birth control, abortion, the vote, or our daughters’ and granddaughters’ future. Just when things look rosiest for women, a new Rick Santorum will be waiting in the wings. And his wife recruited to put a new spin on his misogyny. Just when colleges graduate more women than men, and women are beginning to be paid a little more than a pittance, the press and publishers trot out female quislings to announce that the woman “problem” has been solved. Rubbish.

The fight goes on. There’s plenty to battle against. So again, that muddle? Seems pretty clear to me.

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Bryce Covert’s recent post on The Nation’s website got me thinking today. It’s about an Accenture survey of Gen Y working women which found that

-they have the most positive outlook for women in the workplace of any other generation.

And yet:

-when it comes to their careers, they’re less likely to proactively manage their career or ask for a raise than their male counterparts.

Further:

-they feel underpaid,

-and have found that their careers take a bigger hit than their male counterparts’ once they become parents.

Whew. That’s one hell of a disconnect, wouldn’t you say? While I’m generally an unrepentant optimist, the type to blow sunshine up even the crankiest of derrieres until I get a smile, a study like this makes me question my approach. A positive attitude is well and good, but, when young women declare themselves optimistic about women in the workplace in the very same survey in which they point out gender-based inequities, you kinda gotta worry. Sunshine is good; complacency, not so much.

The trouble is the message we women have been fed: that feminism’s work is over; the battle won. That’s where that sense of optimism comes in, I’d argue. I myself went to an all-girls high school, not too (too too) terribly long ago, and spent my four plaid-skirted years surrounded by the enthusiastic and inspiring message that girls could do anything boys could do. Which is good, of course–because it’s true. Save for peeing one’s name in the snow.

But there’s a little bit of trouble with that approach. One: that you enter the real world largely unprepared for the injustices you will, (yes, I said WILL) come up against as a woman. And two: that when you do come up against them, you will assume they have only to do with you. That the situation–your lesser paycheck; your unwillingness to “proactively manage your career or ask for a raise” for fear of bias or judgment; your employer’s subtly shifting opportunities away once you’ve become a mom or the discrimination you’ll face if you don’t have kids–and the fact that your male counterpart in either of those scenarios will likely be rewarded, seen as either a dependable family man or a guy who has the time to devote to his job, where you’ll be perceived a flight risk or cold and odd, respectively; the realization that if you want a killer career and your husband wants a killer career and you want kids you’re in for a daily struggle that may well lead to one of you “opting” out; that if, against these formidable odds, you do make it to the very top, you will find yourself wildly outnumbered–is merely your problem. That it is personal, and not political. When, of course, it is exactly that. It is collective and it is political–and change happens when we’re willing to see it that way.

Don’t get me wrong: We have come a long way (baby). Think about this: when my mom graduated from college, it was still totally legal for employment want-ads to be segregated by gender. A company could list a managerial job in the men’s want-ads, a secretarial one in the women’s. This was not the dark ages; this was the 1970s.  So clearly we’ve come a tremendous way since disco inferno.

But the fact that we’ve come so far does not mean that our work here is finished. The fact that we have much to be grateful for in no way precludes the many things we should be angry about. Take that pay gap, for example:

U.S. Department of Education data show that a year out of school, despite having earned higher college GPAs in every subject, young women will take home, on average across all professions, just 80 percent of what their male colleagues do… Motherhood has long been the explanation for the persistent pay gap, yet a decade out of college, full-time working women who haven’t had children still make 77 cents on the male dollar.

April 17 of this year is Equal Pay Day. Don’t let the delightful sounding name fool ya, though: that’s the day that a woman’s salary catches up to a man’s… from last year. For doing the same job. Another way to look at that is like this: taken as a whole, from January through April 17, women are working for free.

So, clearly, we still have a hell of a way to go.

Or, I suppose, maybe I should rephrase: the world still has a hell of a way to go.

But who is going to be responsible for steering it in the right direction?

It occurs to me that perhaps these young women are right in their optimism–or here’s my Pollyanna side’s spin, anyway:  for centuries, men’s roles have not changed. Whether buffalo or bacon, they were to bring it home. They were the hunters. They were to provide.

Women, on the other hand, have always adapted–whether when acting the gatherers, surveying the environment to see what it had in store and shifting the game plan accordingly, or to a male-dominated workplace in which we nevertheless were able to ascend, bit by bit, to the point where we are today. We had to fight for the right to wear pants, for craps sake. Now, how many pairs of jeans are in your closet? Change is in our DNA. The office, corporate culture, political institutions — these things aren’t going to change themselves.

The angry part of me and the Pollyanna part come together in the faith that these women will eventually get angry on their own behalf: and once that happens, they’ll see the rest of us, and they’ll join us. And then we’ll do what we’ve always done. We’ll change things. A little anger will help. And so will a little optimism.

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The other day, I got a ping from a former student who sent a link to a recent piece she’d read over on Forbes.com.  “Have you seen this?” she wrote.  “It reminds me of Undecided!”

The topic? Burn-out.  Apparently, it’s rampant among high achieving millennial women. At least that’s the skinny according to a piece by Forbes contributor Larissa Faw who writes that “a growing number of young professional women who seem to ‘have it all’ are burning out at work before they reach 30.”

She had me at have it all.  Faw doesn’t necessarily back up the burn-out rate with numbers, but she does offer some compelling stats that link these “early career flameouts” with women’s declining presence on the upper reaches of the corporate ladder:

 Today, 53% of corporate entry-level jobs are held by women, a percentage that drops to 37% for mid-management roles and 26% for vice presidents and senior managers, according to McKinsey research. Men are twice as likely as women to advance at each career transition stage

Interesting, but not surprising.  What struck me, though – and what perhaps made that former student think of Undecided — was Faw’s rationale that one of the reasons for the lopsided stats is that, whereas women burnout early and jump ship, men stick around.  Why?  Because our brothers know how to relax.  From the story:

 It seems relaxation is something Millennial women have never experienced. One reason that women are burning out early in their careers is that they have simply reached their breaking point after spending their childhoods developing well-rounded resumes. “These women worked like crazy in school, and in college, and then they get into the workforce and they are exhausted,” says Melanie Shreffler of the youth marketing blog Ypulse.

Bingo.

Now, we can’t say whether this inability to take five logically leads to burn-out.  But what we can say, based on the reporting we did for the book, is that this treadmill mentality is very real, especially among young women raised with the message that “you can have it all.”  These are the girls who started building their resumes in grade school, who lived by their day planners and five-year plans, and who crumbled at the sight of a B-plus.

I remember seeing this one little girl, in grade school plaid, sitting in Starbucks, drinking this giant latte, and working w/her tutor on some kind of Princeton Review workbook for acing the high school entrance exam.  No one even questioned the caffeine.  And check this: one study from the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that college educated parents were spending more time with their kids than ever before.  Cool, right? But what the researchers discovered was the root of all this extra time was the perceived scarcity of college spots. The title of the study? The rug rat race.  No joke.  Another piece on CNN a while back featured hard-driving moms who had either quit their jobs or taken a leave to navigate their kids thru the college admission process.

Whew. I’m verging on burn-out just writing this stuff.  Call it the curse of great expectations: The problem with the treadmill mentality is that it leads to a lot of future thinking — a bad habit that’s hard to break — or what psychologists call the arrival fallacy:  If I make this team, get into that college,  score that fat job – then I’ll be happy.

Or not.  Because where the treadmill ends is in the real world.  And though we’ve come a long way, baby, that world has not quite caught up.  All of which has lead to a lot of growing pains as we – and especially our Millennial sisters – learn to navigate the trade-offs without much in the way of a roadmap.

Thing is, for this newest generation of twenty (or thirty) somethings and the rest of us who’ve been bred on perfection and raised with the mantra that the sky’s our limit, well, with everything on the menu, could it be that, no matter what the routine, once something becomes routine, we’re doomed to be just not that into it anymore? No matter the pluses, are we unable to see anything but the minuses? This isn’t quite perfect, so why should I stick around? Once we’re confronted with reality’s non-perfection, do we begin to imagine what we’re not doing?  Hello, carrot.  Meet stick.

Bottom line, we’re in it together, trying to figure this stuff out.  As Teri Thompson, chief marketing officer and vice president of marketing and media at Purdue, tells Forbes:

 “We’re all a work in progress; new inputs—from new friends to new places visited—mean we’re constantly changing in our thoughts of what’s desired, what’s possible, what’s fun, what we want to do.”

Forbes might call it burnout.  We call it finding our way.  By the way, that former student?  She’s a millennial woman herself.  A high achiever who is currently in the throes of her law school applications.

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Last week, at a reading in Seattle, WA, a young woman who’d recently graduated from none less than Harvard, raised her hand: She and her girlfriends had been so thrilled when they were accepted to the school whose name is virtually synonymous with overachievement, accomplishment, and success, she said, “it was like, this is what we’ve been working for our whole lives!” But now that she’d graduated, she had exactly zero idea what to do with herself. Having come of age when she did—in an era where children’s time is programmed to within an inch of their lives, when every activity is undertaken with the explicit aim of servicing the future—is it any wonder she was at a loss, once she found herself thrust out into the real world and left to her own devices to navigate a landscape utterly devoid of any clear path? “What are we supposed to do now?” she asked.

As it turned out, though, she was the rare 20-something woman who knew exactly what she wanted to do next. She came up to chat later and laid it out: Grad school for medival history. She said it with such certainty it left me momentarily speechless: this girl didn’t seem undecided at all! So what was the problem? “Everyone,” she said, “says I shouldn’t do it.” In other words, the problem was this: she wanted something a little bit different, a little outside the culturally-approved norm, and hadn’t yet found a way to trust herself, to go for it, to escape what we like to call the tyranny of the shoulds.

That’s no small task, mind you. Tyrants, after all, are notoriously tricky to oust from power. And the shoulds are seriously entrenched: There are the big bad societal shoulds, of course, and there are also the shoulds you hear in your best friends’ voices, your mom’s, your significant other’s. TV and magazines remind us we should be thinner, happier, and sexier, while our doctors remind us we should sleep more and eat less frosting. And we give the nay-sayers the power—they’re the ones we affix with the name “everyone.” Rather than cueing the voices of our supporters—and surely, there are some—when we’re feeling a little doubtful, we call up the voice of “everyone,” which sounds so much like the voice of our own self-doubt, so damn familiar, it’s tough not to use as your go-to guide. But perhaps we might tune in a bit more, and see if we can hear the voices of everyone else. Search out our yay-sayers. They’re there.

It’s tough, of course, especially for women who’ve been bred to please, to go against the conventional wisdom “everyone” seems to believe. But that might be the surprising upside: knowing how hard it is to buck the “Shoulds,” how much easier it seems to just stick to the program—well, if knowing that and despite it our deep-down self continues its yammering about medival history or whatever – that’s an awfully powerful indicator that it’s our real voice we’re hearing. And that’s the one voice everyone should listen to.

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A couple of weeks ago, we wrote about a NYT mag piece that put forth Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s cause to define “Emerging Adulthood” as its own, unique life stage. And this week, the magazine’s entire Letters section was devoted to responses to that piece. And with good reason: when it comes to the differences between today’s, um, emerging adults, and their 20-something counterparts of generations past, there’s a lot to think about.

One suggests that the world we live in today was shaped by rule-breaking boomers, so it’s logical that those of us who’ve come of age in that world might feel more comfortable going our own way:

As I read Robin Marantz Henig’s discussion of 20-somethings, I was struck by the sense that the new life stage she was ascribing to this generation could actually be something that adults of all ages experience today: feeling unstable, struggling with ferocious competition for jobs, wondering if our relationships and finances can go the distance. I consider it progress that every young person doesn’t feel the need to complete school, leave home, marry and have a child by a certain deadline. There is no ‘one size fits all’ adulthood. Let’s not forget it was the boomers who created the 50 percent divorce rate, who initiated the corporate-casual workplace, who made 60 the new 40. Today’s 20-somethings just want what we all want: the opportunity to live life on our own terms and in our own time frame.

Another suggests that, well, it’s the economy, stupid. Companies don’t take care of their workers for life like they once did–and 20-somethings who’ve watched their parents change professional directions are understandably commitment-shy:

In recent decades, corporate downsizing, the offshore outsourcing of both blue-collar and professional jobs and the loss of corporate loyalty to (and pensions for) committed employees and retirees have rendered quaint the notion of a settled, lifelong career. Today’s 20-somethings have observed their parents not only job-shifting but also career-shifting, many numbers of times over, to say nothing of the job insecurity in the current recession. This situation can make career commitments seem daunting.

This one suggests that “Emerging Adulthood” is a life stage well spent, that getting to know oneself before committing to anything–or anyone–else has long been an important–and recognized–stage:

I fear [Henig] gave short shrift to Erik Erikson’s work on psychosocial development past childhood. She describes the ‘intimacy versus isolation’ stage, a task to be negotiated by the young adult, solely in terms of whether to commit to a lifelong relationship. Erikson meant much more in his focus on the challenge of young adulthood than simply finding a lifelong mate. His view of intimacy included what at one point he referred to as ‘intimacy with oneself, one’s inner resources, the range of one’s excitements and commitments.’ In his view, a person without a sense of self could not maturely commit to another person. It may well be that this lack of closeness with oneself–inner resources, excitements and commitments–might be a key to what we are seeing as the reluctance of the young adult.

But my personal favorite was this one, which suggests that the willingness to dispense with the shoulds and take your time before making commitments is actually pretty damn admirable:

Like many baby boomers, I took the college, career, marriage and children route with barely a detour or reflection. I love my life, and I have few regrets, but to follow a path so mandated by external role pressures and internal expectations, underlain by anxiety and fear of change, perhaps cheapens the essence of ‘choice.’ In contrast, many adults in their 20s are making thoughtful life choices that exemplify flexibility, creativity and courage. Instead of struggling to determine whether this is because of social context or whether it represents a new life stage, perhaps we should simply applaud those among us who best exemplify the American ideals of liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

What do you think?

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By now, you’ve surely seen it. The cover story in this Sunday’s New York Times magazine went viral days before it landed on my doorstep. Robin Marantz Henig’s “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” focuses a lot on the work of psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, who’s trying to get “Emerging Adulthood” identified as an official, distinct life stage. Arnett’s quest is an interesting one, but, regardless whether the label will earn approval, there’s little question that it fits.

Here is, as we geeks of the pen call it, the nut:

It’s happening all over, in all sorts of families, not just young people moving back home but also young people taking longer to reach adulthood overall. It’s a development that predates the current economic doldrums, and no one knows yet what the impact will be–on the prospects of the young men and women; on the parents on whom so many of them depend; on society, built on the expectation of an orderly progression in which kids finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and eventually retire to live on pensions supported by the next crop of kids who finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and on and on. 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.

The subsequent discussion that’s hit the airwaves and the blogosphere comes down like this: Yes, for many 20-somethings, and opposed to maybe their parents’ generation, and certainly their parents’ parents’ generation, the decade is more about exploration than commitment. It makes sense: we live–and work–a lot longer now than ever before. And the interconnected nature of modern life puts all the options out there, front and center on our computer screen, the riper for the fantasizing. So is it any wonder that today’s 20-somethings would rather try before they buy? Rule things out as they make their way, honing in–circuitously… eventually… maybe–on what they ultimately want for their lives? Whether that’s jobs, locations, or romantic partners, the goal of this cohort, in the words of blogger Jessie Rosen,

is to get to the right place, not to get there at the “right time.” It’s not that we don’t know what it means to be an adult and how we’re supposed to do it–it’s that we do.

We are painfully aware that the decisions in our 20s lay the foundation for all of adult life. We know exactly how old our parents were when they had us, and exactly what they sacrificed as a result. We know that time is precious, age isn’t really just a number, and having kids changes everything…

What is so much better about becoming an adult faster?

What am I gaining by taking my time versus what I’m losing by just getting to it already? With every year I wait to be ready to get married, am I letting all the people there are to marry pass me by? Will I be a better, more mature mother at 35 or would I have been just as adept and instinctual at 25? If I live at home with my parents for one more year while I save up to be a full-time writer, will that leave an eternal mark of lame on my life resume? Does being an adult mean having the maturity to know you’re not ready for adult things, or having the maturity to dive in and just figure it out? Won’t I be a better, happier, healthier adult if I take my time getting there?

All of which begs the question: what is this “adult life,” anyway?

According to the NYT piece, sociologists typically define adulthood using a checklist comprised of five milestones (altogether, now!): completing school, leaving home, financial independence, marriage, children. In 1960, 77% of women and 65% of men had ticked them all off by the time they hit the big 3-0. As of 2000, less than 50% of women and one-third of men had killed the checklist.

But, again, to quote–well, myself–is it really that simple?

While financial independence is one thing, as for the rest of it–marriage, parenthood, and one single Career–is making such commitments all there is to being an adult? Is signing on to something–one thing–forever and ever the only thing that can ferry you over the threshold, out of NeverNeverLand and into GrownUpDom?

The idea of checklists, commitments, clearly demarcated life stages, they imply a destination, rather than a journey. And I think the fact of the matter is that whether you’ve got the mortgage, the 2.1 progeny, and the pension plan or not, life is always a journey. We are always emerging, as Arnett puts it. And in that way, it’s apt, though not a stage at all. It’s just life.


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