20-somethings are resisiting the conventional paths laid out for them
“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,” claims writer Robin Marantz Henig in her New York Times piece, “What Is It About 20-Somethings?: Why are so many people in their twenties taking so long to grow up?”
As 20-somethings begin to break free from the confinements of conformity, taking time to learn more about themselves and what they want to do, Henig, as well as others, are talking about 20-year-olds as if they have some type of Peter Pan disorder. Yet perhaps it’s not that we’re “afraid to grow up,” but we have less faith in the traditional life path, and we’ve found more value in figuring out life for ourselves.
Henig defines adulthood as the completion of “five traditional milestones:” graduating school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child. After questioning new lifestyle trends of 20-somethings who are taking longer to reach these milestones, she concludes this phenomenon to be a newly discovered period of psychological development called the “emerging adult,” a sort of late bloomer.
Yet, this “psychological development” is not being treated as merely a new discovery, but as a newfound illness. Some psychological institutions are even being created to help care for “emerging adults.” One of these institutions is Yellowbrick, a private physician-owned and operated psychiatric healthcare organization, which states on its website that its mission is “to provide a full-spectrum, specialized approach to the emotional, psychological and developmental challenges of emerging adults.”
This new label is a way to capitalize on young people who feel lost or parents’ fear for their own profit, rendering those who fit within its loose and broad definition mentally incompetent. Yellowbrick, located outside of Chicago, appears to be more like a retreat or spa with classes in motivational assessment, job readiness, interview preparation, yoga, art therapy and martial arts.
Yellowbrick would not respond to requests to be interviewed.
It is irresponsible to recognize the “emerging adult” label exists and claim it should be taken as a legitimate mental handicap in need of specialized attention. This overlooks the reality that adulthood is rather ambiguous, both on a legal and biological level.
“The line of adulthood is blurry,” said Derek Thompson, senior editor of The Atlantic, who wrote a counter argument to Henig’s New York Times piece. “You can drink at 21, but fight for your country at 18, and see nudity on a large screen at 17. The law isn’t any clearer than biology.”
Adulthood in western culture is a concept with no clear point of beginning within the life of the individual. With its ambiguous definition and ability to span generations, this new “emerging adult” label has been highly criticized by sociologists and economists, and has been questioned by psychologists.
“I’m not ready to accept that this is a new age class or embrace it as anything,” said Jonathan Laskowitz, a sociology professor at Ithaca College who specializes in youth delinquency and definitions of normality. “There are other ways to measure adulthood and maturity.”
After all, identity exploration is a lifelong process. New experiences on top of old memories, along with the number of social, economic and religious influences all contribute to the overall creation of the individual. Thus, one cannot help but wonder about the number of adults that divorce because they and their spouses have changed since they first got married; the number of housewives who are unsatisfied with their lives and go out into the professional world, explore themselves, and their career options; and the number of balding men in sports cars driving down the street.
Not only is our increase in self-discovery a factor in our unconventional paths, but so is the current political climate.
“Half a century ago, it might have been normal to graduate from college, marry in your lower 20s, have a kid, settle down at a nice firm, put in your 40 years and clock out with a good-looking pension,” Thompson said. “But that’s not the world we live in.”
Indeed times have changed: there are a growing number of college graduates, an economy in recession, and a national unemployment rate of 9 percent. Twenty-somethings may be losing faith in the American Dream and any sort of “steps” to success and happiness.
“Millions of kids have to take on lots of debt to get through school and then they’ve graduated into a horrible economy where the price of essentials like health care and energy aren’t going down but the opportunities to be paid to afford them are going down,” Thompson said.
As there are a variety of socio-economic factors that contribute to adulthood, Laskowitz reminds us not to forget the “emerging adult” label is a term used mainly to describe those who are most fortunate.
“This label is really only applicable to privileged individuals who are not meeting those ‘milestones,’” he said. “I bet there are a lot of other kids from low-income communities in their twenties who would like the opportunity to grow up, but most of them already have.”
Stephen Hamilton, a developmental psychology professor from Cornell University agreed, “It is not universal. The ‘emerging’ path … is practically defined by extended higher education and is predominantly middle class or higher.”
Hamilton explains how there are three other groups of 20-somethings all partially defined in relation to their socio-economic status.
“One follows a ‘traditional’ path — actually not traditional but familiar in the mid-twentieth century, which tends to be the point of reference. Another follows the ‘emerging’ path … This group is practically defined by extended higher education and is predominantly middle class or higher. A third group assumes partial adult responsibilities prematurely — having children and/or working instead of going to school. The fourth group’s path to adulthood is blocked by the absence of economic opportunity. They are unable to marry or support children because no jobs are available.”
This new label of emerging adult is a sign of a changing society and another generation’s inability to accept this change. Social change is always met with resistance and this legitimization of a new stage in mental development by some of the psychological community signifies an inability to accept an organic process. We as a younger generation cannot completely conform to the traditional five milestones either by choice, or because of life circumstances.
Perhaps it is time to recognize that times are changing, the economy is changing and American culture is changing. The idea of “emerging adulthood” tries to put us into boxes and conform us to the norm. Instead of labeling a select group of young people who return to the nest or who explore their identity through alternative ways, we should embrace this change and other ways of living. It is normal to change your mind throughout your lifetime; that is how we grow and develop as individuals. In order to become healthy individuals who are well-rounded and happy with ourselves, it is important to make mistakes and grow — anyone who says otherwise is selling something.
Emily Brown is a senior English and sociology major who has no clue what she is doing after graduation, and that is OK. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.