A long piece in the NYTimes Magazine ponders, “Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?”

Sigh. Same shit, different decade. Twenty years ago, when I was indeed 20, Time Magazine ran a cover story on “twenty-somethings” — the first I had heard the term used — musing on the same questions. Back then there was much consternation among Baby Boomers and older generations that Gen Xers were a bunch of slackers, wearing ripped jeans and listening to Grunge™ music (a mostly white middle class stereotype then; other anxieties were visited upon the HipHop Generation of black youth). Same questions. At least the author of this new iteration acknowledges as much:

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.

Emphasis mine, highlighted to ask a simple question: Have you not noticed the gradual withering away of the middle class over the last 30-40 years? The diminished buying power of real wages? The loss of manufacturing jobs? The ridiculous cost of a higher education? The economic collapse of the Great Lake states? The third world poverty conditions of most of the southern (west and east) of the continental United States? All of these predate “the current economic doldrums” — indeed, one might suggest that they are factors contributing to them.

Not to mention the gambling away of pensions. Such are the activities of “grown ups”.

Economic factors are lightly addressed by this article, but much more attention is paid to sociological debates about “emerging adulthood”; a proposed protected status for people in their twenties (eek!); neuroscience of young adults,;”helicopter parents” stifling maturation; the privileged status of twenty-somethings “delaying” adulthood (contrasted with impoverished black youth who have not had the “luxury”); and so on. Some of this is interesting, even accurate material — certainly the neuroscience raises interesting questions — and I like the proposal “to start rethinking our definition of normal development and to create systems of education, health care and social supports that take the new stage into account.” That at least is a start to addressing fundamental economic and social inequalities that affect most young adults, regardless of individual paces of maturation.

Yet the article begins with a set of assumptions about adulthood and growing up that it takes as teleological endpoints, as goals for which all people in their youth must aspire. As a married father of two with a house and a professional career, I have obviously shared those aspirations; one could perhaps posit them as a “norm.” But shouldn’t we view these assumptions with some skepticism? There is an implication that if one has not conformed to certain social expectations, one has not “grown up.” The value of being childless (especially when you don’t want children), of being single, of refusing marriage, of contributing to society in other ways — these you will not find appreciated in this article. If they were, perhaps this issue of delayed “adulthood” would not seem so dire.

Or perhaps trivial. Are there not other values we can ascribe to maturity? It is really hard to read the news today and not think that adults are behaving no better than children in the playground. Albeit with deadlier weapons and more powerful instruments to oppress, manipulate, and exploit. The young adults quoted in this article who express a desire to simply “enjoy life” seem to have their shit together much more compared to idiots who blow themselves up in pizzerias or wage illegal wars for corporate profit. At the least, they are not increasing the amount of suffering in the world.

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