20-Somethings

By now most Gen-Y bloggers have already seen the New York Times Magazine, and one of this week's feature stories, What Is It About 20-Somethings? The piece seems frustrating to so many because, from the perspective of a boomer, it criticizes an entire generation for being immature and unable to "grow up". No doubt, this article has left a lot of people with a sour taste in their mouths; some are even asking What Is It About Robin Marantz Henig?

(from Flickr user Thom Watson)

Marantz Henig's story begins with anecdotes of college grads who overqualified themselves for entry-level work with advanced degrees or who can't make a career for themselves for some other reason. The author dubs this a failure to "grow up".

Traditionally, "growing up" meant passing through distinct life stages: 1) finish school 2) start a career 3) become financially independent 4) get married and 5) start a family. Not long ago, all five milestones were accomplished by the time people reached the age of 30. Today, how many twenty-somethings are still trying to figure out step one? Marantz Henig sums it up like this:
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.
She then goes into a discussion of the history of life cycle theory, the potential for the new life stage "emerging adulthood" and how it's becoming more prevalent than ever.

What bothers a lot of twenty-somethings, myself included, is the tone of the article. The idea that the way our parents' generation did things must be correct, and therefore there's something wrong with the way our generation chooses to live.

Think about the first of five milestones that twenty-somethings seem unable to accomplish: finishing school. Not long ago, all you needed was a bachelor's degree and you were pretty much set for life. And if you wanted one, the price tag attached to that degree was affordable. Not anymore. Now, people graduate without highly specialized or marketable degrees that make it challenging to land entry-level jobs that previously didn't require a college degree at all. And in the process, many have managed to rack up tens of thousands in debt, something unheard of until recently.

Likewise, step two: start a career. Anyone who honestly believes that, in the past few years, starting a career is a simple task, or that college grads who can't find work are just lazy, is delusional. Many young people are completely unable to find work, even if they want to, leaving them stuck in step one as they hope for an advanced degree that will mean something. Others take the one and only job offer that's extended to them - often in a field or position nothing like what they imaged doing while they were in college. Should it be such a surprise that twenty-somethings switch jobs so often? If it were as simple as landing their desired career after graduation, I'd bet that they wouldn't.

The last three steps are all connected as well. It's harder than ever to become financially independent with the sheer amount debt that people are taking on, often because they believe it's a necessity and unavoidable. And arguably, it's inadvisable to start a family if you can't financially support your kids. Would anyone actually suggest it's better to rush into parenthood before you can afford it so that you can meet some arbitrary life milestone? Not to mention, what's the point of getting married by age of 25? Our parents' generation did that and it turned out badly for many of them.

Ultimately, it boils down to the fact that there have always been twenty-somethings who were unable to grow up. An entire generation is too massive to describe as a single group. It is true that more twenty-somethings today are waiting longer to complete the five milestones. In some cases, it's because they have little choice. In other cases, it's because they're being smart about the situation.

Is this behavior different than the behavior a generation ago? Yes. Is it wrong? Not necessarily.

5 comments:

    I think the idea that if you complete all the five criteria you will be grown up is false. It's more mature to wait, in many cases.

     
    On August 23, 2010 rg said...

    "Ultimately, it boils down to the fact that there have always been twenty-somethings who were unable to grow up. An entire generation is too massive to describe as a single group."

    You hit the nail on the head in those two sentences! I remember similar articles about Gen X when I was in my 20s. And I certainly had friends who were slackers and who were slow to establish themselves as adults and who spent much of their twenties traveling and hopping from job to job. But I also had friends going to medical school, working for the Peace Corps and embarking on what are now really successful careers! But, according to the mass media of the time, all Gen Xers were flighty, unfocused dreamers who just could not seem to grow up.

    In short, I find these types of articles silly at best, especially since most of them are written by the members of the baby boom generation. At the risk of falling into the trap of genearlizing about an entire generation: I think the baby boomers might benefit from a little bit more introspection when pondering the identity of an entire generation!

     

    This is interesting - I don't know if it's because I'm well into my 30's but I read the article quite differently. To me, most of the article is precisely ABOUT the fact that "there have always been twenty-somethings who were unable to grow up". The article isn't really about the current generation, it's about whether the 20's can be considered a separate developmental stage, 'emerging adulthood'. And the author even talks about the debate in the developmental psych field over the fact that there is such diversity in people's experiences (one of the academics points out that in order to be a stage of development, it needs to be universal, and there are lots of people who seem to 'skip' this stage so maybe we can't really call it a 'stage' after all). The title and first few paragraphs might seem to be maligning your generation but I didn't read it as suggesting that the why previous generations have done things was necessarily superior.

     

    I wrote a long response but it was just me being angry at Baby Boomers. Is there a time machine around here somewhere? I want to go hit someone over the head in their 20s in the 60s

     

    Rob, don't believe everything critical of your generation by the Baby Boomer generation!

    I am a Baby Boomer, born in 1949, and can tell you that in our "twenty-something" years our parents and grandparents were wondering what was going on with us.

    A good example is on this website-here http://www.the-baby-boomers-webplace.com/baby-boomer-years.html and here http://www.the-baby-boomers-webplace.com/1960s.html.

    Just look at history and you'll see generational gaps: such as the Roaring Twenties in the U.S.!

    As you can see Rob, not all baby boomers are out to "get you." Just those who can't see past themselves.

    The Ol' Boomer