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.