I can’t believe we’re going through this again.

In January 2005, Time magazine featured on its cover a photo of a young man in a shirt and dress slacks sitting in a sandbox. The headline: “They Just Won’t Grow Up.”  The article featured the research of one Jeffrey Jensen Arnett,PhD, a developmental psychologist who coined the term “emerging adulthood” to explain these puzzling, infantilized adults.

The cover story of the New York Times Magazine this weekend, already situated snugly at the top of the Most-Emailed List, is a near-exact repeat of this story from 5 years ago, this time asking “What is it About Twenty-Somethings?” Again Arnett is the resident featured expert. The Times’ only innovation, besides the slightly higher quality of the writing and the greater length, is tarting up the article with lots of sexy pictures of 20somethings (“I’m lying on my bed, all angsty! Look down my shirt!”) so readers can lust after them while simultaneously shaking their heads.

While they try on various social science hypotheses to explain this transition the overall tone of both articles is condescending, puzzled, frustrated, mocking. Both take the point of view of the print magazines’ aging readership: your mom, who wants you to get a job and an apartment and get married and give her grandchildren.

As I argued at great length in my book Generation Debt in 2006, and in dozens of articles for the Village Voice, Yahoo!, the New York Times, and the Washington Post dating back to 2004, the overwhelming reasons for this so-called “delayed transition” are economic. College costs 1000% more money than it did 30 years ago, yet it’s required for most living-wage jobs. Young people work longer hours while they’re in school, so it takes them longer to finish. Rent is higher too, and the youth unemployment rate is the highest for any age group. Young people have unprecedented amounts of student loan and credit card debt that persist into their 30s. Getting married, let alone starting a family, is difficult, even inadvisable, when you’re not financially stable.

Even when we as a nation try to remedy Generation Debt’s problems, we do so in a way that extends financial dependency. For example, the recent health care bill included a provision that young adults must be included on their parents’ health care policies until the age of 26. Why not mandate instead that the part-time service employers that overwhelmingly rely on young workers provide access to health care coverage?

There is no mysterious collective 20something malaise. The poor position of our nation’s future workforce is the outgrowth of decades of economic policy–the growth of consumer and national debt and the deterioration of the American job market, the protection of old-people programs like Social Security and Medicare and the faltering of opportunity-creating programs like education and health care for all. Maybe the Times should be talking to its own Paul Krugman, not a psychologist.

Or, if the Times editors wanted to emphasize the cultural and personal experience that emerges from this economic background, why not commission a young writer? Why is an article asking “What’s Up With Twentysomethings?” being written by a  writer who is clearly at least in her 50s? I can think of half a dozen writers in their 20s who’d be great for the job. I’d have been happy to do it myself–I’ll be in my 20s for 3 more weeks.

9 Responses to “What’s Up With Twentysomethings? In A Word, Economics”

  1. I think that the economy has certainly helped ensure a “delayed transition,” but it isn’t the cause of it. The cause is whatever was on the minds of adults that ensured that they (note: not greedy elites) created a world that would leave their children scrambling to convince themselves they’ll ever be as adult –as mature — as their own parents were. If your own parents kind of like the idea of their kids being unlikely to ever effectively warrant their holding presumptive moral authority over them, kind of like the idea of a world that ensures that their kids will never quite feel secure and safe enough to roam too far from their own expectations / wishes of them, then you’re fighting against a lot that might keep you from feeling trenchantly independent, even if you were to score a franchise of husband-wife, career, house, grandchildren by the age of 25 (accoutrements, of course, that demonstrate you are living the life others expect of you — that you are playing along: there is no escape). There are people hovering over you, of the type that (increasingly — maybe not even) covertly partake in the seemingly now guilt-free opportunity to peer down your shirt, that your blameworthy / childish / bad-lingering has somehow freely opened up for them, while overtly sighing and wishing you would finally grow up: they’re clearly ones to enjoy the fruits of a situation they are pretending only to decry. If you’ve spent your youth amongst parents like that, long experiencing unresolvable, contradictory expectations from you– in what R.D. Laing once determined as a schizophrenia-inducing kind of environment — you haven’t the sanity or the stuff to create your own 60s to clear your way free of your parent’s intention to always be your overlords. Rather, there will be something in you working away until you yourself are convinced you are as lazy and indulgent as your parents perceive you as — whatever the state of economy; how impossible an environment you’ve been given to prove you’re up to snuff. Repeatedly through history, but a good while back, this kind of horrific, impossible environment drew many to eagerly sign up for war. Instantly, they were war heroes, ready to demonstrate their virtue in their willingness to play to the sacrificial wishes of their mother-country. A shorter while back, we remember Faramir sacrificing himself so his disapproving Steward father would finally for once “think better of him,” and how an audience engaged with what was on screen, with what they felt inside themselves.

    The 60s generation made their way free because after the mass sacrifice of WW2, allowance / permission (even if at first, cautious) had power over restriction / punishment — hemming parents were pit not so much against their children as against historical law, and surely felt and maybe knew their fate was to be neutralized until their own children had franchised themselves to the point that they were now ready to statue their slowly-crumbling parents as the “greatest generation.” There is no such great wind behind the backs of today’s millenials; their best bet is if some of them — despite Reagan, 80s on — actually have the self-assurance / self-esteem they keep being credited for possessing: with that they might smartly placate but never dumbly play to the desires of an older populace, increasingly intent on ensuring that the one thing kids do not do is lead / possess their own independent lives.

    Note: If charged, emotive talk of mass child-sacrifice seems out of place in an economic discussion, please skip Paul Krugman’s most recent NYT article. Mind you, since he’s moved from repeatedly calling current economic policies “cruel” to thinking of them as willed blood-lettings of the mad-but-in-charge, I’m not quite sure how long Krugman will keep his hold “as a man to be reckoned with.” What do you do with a man who once routinely offered sober reasonings, but now finds explanations in strange analogies, runes and animal guts?

    Krugman link: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/20/opinion/20krugman.html?hp

  2. banannahamster says:

    Why I Won’t Grow Up

    There are a lot of reasons.

    First, I know too many kids from Europe. I know too many, and they’re doing what I’m doing right now–which is nothing.

    But they’re still in college. They’re taking time off.

    And I’m bitter about that. I wasn’t forced into college. It was my own decision. But it was the “right” one. I took out a bunch of money for it. I had to do what was “right.” Had to.

    “You can’t do anything without a college education. Get that education, and then you can…”

    Take on the world?

    “Don’t take time off from college, or you’ll never go back.”

    Why do they? (The Europeans, I mean.)

    Anyway, I know a bunch of kids from Europe, and they’re just more laid back with their lives. A lot of them live at home.

    Marius, a guy from Switzerland (which I can get to tomorrow, if I want), tells me, “You know, Americans––you don’t take as much time off as us. But you also get a lot more done. Maybe that’s because the pace is so fast there. There’s more pressure for innovation, and that pressure comes from society.”

    We get more done?

    You know…we got so many ribbons growing up. You guys gave them to us.

    Do you know how many participation ribbons I have? Like fifty. For doing all sorts of stuff. Losing a soccer game. Losing a spelling bee. Finishing college. I was rewarded for participating.

    And now, I expect that, again. Even in college, I could fail a test, but I was still in college, which placed me above everyone not in college. They were the people I would help (they were also fighting in Iraq, so I guess there’s the trade off). They were doing poorly. So they had to fight. And they would, too, for the rest of their lives. Because they didn’t go to college.

    I did.

    So one it’s the Europeans that I know, and two it’s the ribbons.

    Three, it’s history.

    My generation is more acutely aware of what’s going on, I believe, than any other generation ever. I know what’s going on in China–right now. I know what happened in the last five minutes in Texas and Europe and some places you’ve never heard of. I know what happened today, and I can tell you how that falls in line with everything that has happened all throughout history and why it is the way it is, and–

    Because I’ve got this great college education. I’m sure I deeply understand these things.

    Do I understand them? No. My grandmother keeps everything. That’s because she remembers the Great Depression.

    The Recession sort of scared me. But I’ve grown up believing things get fixed. And America’s the land of opportunity, and if things need fixing…well, I’ll get around to it. It has never been too late for me.

    I support Gay Rights. I don’t fight for them. I know other people do, and will, and always have––I might have studied about that?

    My America’s always come around to accepting it’s people.

    I’m also white, but the blacks I know weren’t sprayed with fire hoses.

    I knew Prop 8 would be overturned. I didn’t march.

    The closest I ever came to a Civil Rights rally was being drunk in Grant Park when Obama gave his victory speech.

    I know it’s who I know–not what.

    I don’t know war. Sure Iraq, and some kids were pissed about that. But we’re out of that now. I think?

    Sure Afghanistan, but I’m not fighting there. Other twenty-somethings are, the Mexican ones who will go to college after they come back–if they’re not too fucked up or dead.

    But these twenty-somethings articles are not about those types of twenty-somethings, are they?

    The draft makes me laugh. It will never, never, affect me, which is why I never really protested the war.

    My food is so cheap. I am always full.

    When my friends go on food stamps, they shop at Whole Foods.

    Fox News doesn’t scare me.

    I’m not scared. I’m not uncomfortable. I hear my elders’ stomachs turning––“Child, you know not what you say.”

    But I do, and I’m hoping to get some fame from this. It’s why I’m posting it in the comments section. Because I’ve seen how that works. I see how everything works, and I see it fast, and I see it immediately, and eighty is not a new number to me, it’s the number, and it’s how long I’m going to live.

  3. Jennifer Jarratt says:

    Good stuff to read, thank you. Dangerous to generalize about people of course. Years ago (yes, I’m quite old!) I heard the head of the US Census Bureau describe a new life stage that all succeeding generations (18-25 ish) would have to go through & that was a several-year information-seeking stage while trying to figure out what to do next. While they were doing it their elders were bound to see them as slackers because they’d pick up one thing, drop it, & pick up another, play games, hang out & so on.

    Obviously the state of the economy makes a big difference in how this stage works out for individuals. In the boom phase, I’m sure more people got out of college & into good jobs as soon as they could (to pay off those loans). Whether they stayed in those jobs is another matter.

    Back in the olden days after World War II–at least in the US, the gov’t and industry wanted people to get educated & out of college fast so they could take up the jobs waiting for them. Ain’t so today.

    We all have a tendency to think that our own experience should be the experience of the next generation. You should forgive us for that. You’ll probably do the same yourself eventually.

  4. Emarie says:

    I am one of those almost-50 parents and a mother of three, but the article I would have written wouldn’t have been the one published in the New York Times. I belong to a poorly understood group: those who homeschool not for religious reasons but because they want their kids to have more autonomy, choice, and freedom. Instead of years of learned dependency in a system that rewards conformity and doing what you’re told, they have experienced what it’s like to make serious decisions about what, when, and how they are going to study and, by extension, lead their lives.

    I’m not suggesting that everyone should homeschool, I’m just saying that there’s value in “Teenage Liberation” (thanks, Grace Llewelyn), in offering creative alternatives to our traditional system of education, and not waiting until high school graduation to finally allow kids to make their own decisions. In other words, I think Mr. McEvoy-Halston has a point, but I’d like him to know that there’s an entire demographic of families who are doing things differently.

    I have faith that my kids—and their peers—will find a way to be successful, but success will be defined on their own terms, not mine. And I think that’s the way it should be. I find it hard to believe that any young adults aspire to live with Mom and Dad for the rest of their lives. For most, it is a temporary stopping place along the way to greater independence and freedom.

    I believe my job, as a concerned parent, is to lobby for changes that will help to remove any unreasonable obstacles that stand in the way of the next generation. I think our educational system is a good place to start, and DIY U is a logical step in the right direction.

  5. Walter Jesse Smith says:

    I have no website.

    Keep up the great work, Anya. Excepting Paul Krugman and Frank Rich, perhaps the best way to think of the NYTimes is something like thinking of the senile old professor who still doesn’t know sexism, like racism, is a thing of the past.

    Besides, the senile old Times is about to close its print operations. All of us eventually die, even fictional persons (i. e. corporations, gods, ufos, etc.). Of course, the Times trying to survive as a cyberchild is rather like dressing up your dying grandmother in daipers and swaddling blankets and calling her a newborn.

    You are doing a fine job. Don’t waste your time explaining your thoughts to Time or the Times or any of them. They are so superior to the rest of us they don’t have to think for themselves, thus their incapacity to inform themselves before writing out their wisdom.

  6. Nice read mate. Thanks. Agreed to most part…

  7. Emarie:

    Some people never aspire to leave home, because it means never incurring their parents’ wrath for abandoning them. They placate them by keeping close, and this enables them some small relief from anxiety, AND some breathing room. I’m sure your kids are so much a world apart that they can’t relate. Good on them. Good on you. I’ll bet you have the right kind of life-long ties, that needn’t be so distant and apart.

  8. Emily B. says:

    I liked your post, Emarie; I’m a fan of Grace Llewellyn’s work, too. I think a lot of our employment and economic problems stem at least partly from the way our school system works: as you said, encouraging dependency and passivity, not independence and creativity. I think a huge part of any meaningful, sustainable recovery from this economic slump and future ones will be breaking the stranglehold that the school system as it is has on the way we educate kids and what we consider to be success. Because sitting obediently and collecting good grades and test scores for 13 years in order to be rewarded with college and a “good” job is clearly not working out so well anymore for a lot of people.

  9. Charles says:

    I’m nearing 29, and have two kids. My wife and I agree that they can live with us as long as they want, unless they’re just leeching or hiding from life. If we have room, they have room.

    Emily and Emarie, good thoughts about the system encouraging passivity and dependency. It’s ironic, because every time some reformer opens his mouth, he talks about “fostering independence and critical thinking,” then puts together some program that gives four choices instead of two. It seems like any system except the one we have would work – Montessori, classical, Waldorf – but we won’t do it.

    The other problem is the simultaneous raising of bars and lowering of standards. Everyone must graduate high school to have any hope of not starving, it seems, but it takes much less work and much less learning to do so. The bar is higher, but the standard for clearing it is lower. High school grads aren’t as smart or educated as they should be, which means they have to make it easier to get in to college. When they do that they raise costs, lengthen the time needed to graduate, bring in a bunch of students who, frankly, have no hope of graduating anyway (which costs them a year and a few tens of thousands of dollars), then graduate students who aren’t as smart or as educated as they need to be. That means anyone who actually wants to be educated has to get a masters. Repeat cycle…

    Today’s BA is yesterday’s diploma, and today’s MA is yesterdays BA. What we need is for leaders to quit pushing this line that in order to “be ready for the next century,” or to “succeed in a global economy,” every kid needs to go to college. They should instead focus on making grade school more challenging and more effective, and on having a realistic expectation of aggregate student ability.
    Not every kid will graduate high school, and not every kid should go to college. Many of those who graduate shouldn’t go to college. They should be educated well enough in 12-13 years to be able to, say, manage a FedEx warehouse (which, beyond all reason, requires a college degree).

    When these kids are helped to achieve some skill, share in some knowledge, and figure out who they are before they (try to) leave home, they might not seem so lost.

Leave a Reply