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Posts Tagged ‘Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’

Flying solo is in–in a serious way. A New York Times Q&A with Eric Kilnenberg, NYU sociology professor and author of the new book “Going Solo,” leads with the facts:

In 1950, 22 percent of American adults were single. Now that number is almost 50 percent. One in seven adults lives alone. Half of all Manhattan residences are one-person dwellings.

Kilnenberg has done his research. He spent a decade studying the phenomenon while working on his book, and he has all kinds of good explanations for those numbers. There’s less stigma than there once was around being single. People crave privacy and personal space–tough to preserve when you’re sharing a bathroom. From another piece he wrote several weeks ago,

Living alone comports with modern values. It promotes freedom, personal control and self-realization–all prized aspects of contemporary life.

And Kilnenberg’s not the only one digging in. Melanie Kurtin enumerated what keeps her from committing here and Dominique Browning did the same thing here, while Kate Bolick’s much-discussed piece in The Atlantic, “All the Single Ladies,” leads with a simple confession:

In 2001, WHEN I was 28, I broke up with my boyfriend. Allan and I had been together for three years, and there was no good reason to end things. He was (and remains) an exceptional person, intelligent, good-looking, loyal, kind. My friends, many of whom were married or in marriage-track relationships, were bewildered. I was bewildered. To account for my behavior, all I had were two intangible yet undeniable convictions: something was missing; I wasn’t ready to settle down.

And this, I think, really gets at the truth behind our reluctance to commit: to borrow–and tweak–a phrase from a long-ago presidential campaign, It’s too many choices, stupid!

When we’re told that we can have it all, that everything is on the table, why would we ever commit to anything? Even if we know we love the thing to which we’re committing, we can’t help but wonder about all the things we didn’t choose.

And I’m not just talking about relationships.

Too many options applies to commitment of the romantic sort, sure, but also to jobs and where we should live and what kind of life we should have. Passion or paycheck? Security or freedom? Long hair or short? High heels or hiking boots?

Deciding, by definition, means “to kill.” Choosing one thing means you’re killing the possibility of having the other. And when we’re raised on the idea that anything’s possible–and every option is available–we see choosing anything as settling. And, of course, it is–it’s settling for something less than everything.

When you decide to take one path, there’s a risk of missing out on something–something we often imagine to be glorious, the proverbial greener grass–waiting for us at the end of another. As Hannah, a woman we profile in Undecided, put it:

The grass is always greener. Like, do I want to move to San Francisco? Colorado? South America? Will life be any better in any of those places? Probably not. But it might be, so there’s that risk that I’m taking by not moving.

This mindset is so prevalent, some worry we have an entire generation of commitmentphobes on our hands. Psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett is trying to get the in-between stage–the years when we try different jobs/relationships/cities/hairstyles on for size–designated as a distinct life stage, one he calls Emerging Adulthood. People don’t spent their entire career with one company anymore–the very idea sounds Flinstonian. Nor do they generally marry their high school sweethearts. To paraphrase Hannah, There’s that risk we’re taking by not checking out what else is out there. We have the whole world to explore first!

For women in particular, it’s excruciating. Because, in addition to that message–that we can do anything!–we were fed another, often from the women just a generation or two older than us, who weren’t afforded the same opportunity: that we’re so lucky that we can do anything. And combined, they leave many of us shouldering a load of responsibility. 

From a post I wrote some time ago,

This bounty of opportunity is so new that we were sent off to conquer it with no tools–just an admonishment that we’d best make the most of it.

We know we’re blessed to have all of these options. We get it. And so is it any wonder we want a shot at each and every one of them?

But therein lies the rub.

We want to travel, but can’t take off whenever we feel like it if we’re also going to get our business off the ground–and featured in Oprah. We want a family, but that’d mean that packing up and moving to Cairo or New Orleans on a whim is pretty much off the table. We want to be there for our daughter’s every milestone, yet we also want to model what a successful career woman looks like. We want torrid affairs and hot sex, but where would that leave our husbands? We want financial security and a latte on our way to the office every morning, but sit in our ergonomically correct chairs daydreaming about trekking through Cambodia with nothing but our camera and mosquito net. We want to be an artist, but have gotten rather used to that roof over our heads. We want to be ourselves, fully and completely, but would like to fit in at cocktail parties, too. (And when on earth are we going to find the time to write our novel??)

We want to do it all, to try it all before we buy! And that, I believe, is what’s at the root of the cold feet. Choices are hard. Damn hard. And every one of them entails a trade-off. The work is in accepting that–and in finding out who you are right down at your core, and figuring which of those trade-offs you can live with.

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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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Lately I’ve been getting a lot of emails from former students, wondering what to do with themselves when grown-up dreams get bitch-slapped by recession-era reality. One, from a talented writer, whose job fell through after only a matter of weeks, particularly hit home. Should she stay in the big city, where she had just scored the perfect apartment, she wondered, or move back to the comfort of her middle-of-the-country roots.

Moving home, she wrote, was “somewhat appealing. But then again, not at all.”

Which reminded me of an apocryphal story I once heard that speaks — in a very weird way — to the tyranny of the comfort zone. It goes like this: There was this housewife who for years cut the ends off a roast beef before she put it in the oven, until someone asked her why. That was the way her mother always did it, she replied, but then got to wondering herself. And so for the first time, she asked her elderly mother why SHE cut the ends off the roast. Her mother’s reply? Because the pan wasn’t big enough.

And therein lies the danger of sticking only with what you know — why, as Shannon wrote in Perfection: A Zero Love Game, comfort zones can morph into prisons of our own making: You stop asking why. You forget to explore.  It’s not just about moving back to your high school bedroom after college, or cooking dinner the same way your mother always did. It’s also about surrounding yourself with people just like you, people who think like you think and do like you do — whether they’re hipsters or jocks, high school buddies or sorority sisters, take-no-prisoners business types or stay-at-home moms. If you’re stuck in a homogeneous universe, as comfort zones so often are, your world shrinks. And there’s the danger. Before long, you not only become trapped by the norm of your own particular niche, you cease to question it. Choices that take you beyond it — in any direction — get scary.  Cognitive dissonance, the method by which we learn and grow?  Out the window.

To a certain extent, all this comfort zone business can be a cliche of the quarter-life crisis, which Washington Post reporter Lindsay Minnema tackled anew last month:

It’s not a new phenomenon, but today’s young people seem to experience it more acutely than the young people who came before them. And with the tumultuous economy and job market meltdown of the past year, recent grads are getting a double helping of quarter-life anxiety.

Unlike young adults of generations past, many of whom were married and settled in their careers by their mid-20s, today’s college grads experience a longer period of transition to the settled-down stage, said Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a research professor of psychology at Clark University in Massachusetts and author of “Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From Late Teens Through the Twenties.”

“It is a unique time of life when people are not entirely dependent on their parents . . . but they don’t have a stable life structure with marriage and parenthood and stable work,” Arnett said. “They go in a lot of directions, change jobs a lot, change love partners. They go through a long period of figuring out who they are and how they fit in the world.”

Arnett believes this transition period can be positive, with its opportunities for growth and adventure. But for some people, the turmoil brings worry, fears of failure or of being trapped by responsibilities, or depression.

On that latter note, Minnema quotes Leslie Seppinni, a marriage and family therapist and doctor of clinical psychology in Beverly Hills, Calif., who suggests that one route out of their funk is for quarter-lifers to expand their horizons:

Instead of stewing in their misery, quarter-lifers should focus on what they can change, Seppinni said. “Although it is a time of depression, it is also a time of being creative in getting yourself to do something out of your comfort zone,” she said. “Embrace the challenge.”

Meanwhile, what did I write to that former student? Nothing profound. Just this:

I once held a job for three days. This is true. They were the longest, most awful days of my life. But at least I knew. Your next step will likely evolve, rather than present itself as such. Meanwhile, don’t give up. And yes, you should definitely test the waters in ——- to see if you like the city, by working as a barrista if need be. If you packed up and left right now, you’d always wonder if you had missed out. You may love it. Or you may hate it. In which case, you can skip away happily in search of something new…

In other words, you’ll give yourself the chance to figure it out.

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