What’s the Matter With Twentysomething Kids Today?

A Slate discussion on the state and fate of young people.

Readers, please join us in this Slate discussion of the New York Times piece on twentysomethings by posting your own thoughts and questions in the commenting section below the article.

Nathan Heller
Welcome, everyone. Yesterday the New York Times Magazine posted online a preview of an article, “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” that will appear in this weekend’s issue. The piece is by Robin Marantz Henig, and it’s a meaty, thoroughly reported look at a question that’s rising to the fore as the boomlet comes of age: What’s the matter with twentysomething kids these days? Henig describes a trend of “young people taking longer to reach adulthood”:

It’s a development that predates the current economic doldrums, and no one knows yet what the impact will be. … 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.

It’s an eloquent portrait of my generation—I’m in my middle 20s—and Henig uses it to introduce the work of Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a psychologist who’s written about a late-adolescent stage he designates “emerging adulthood.” Trying to frame Arnett’s work, Henig reviews lab research (a longitudinal study of brain development) and past theories of similar trends (e.g., Kenneth Keniston’s writing on the twentysomething phase he called “youth”). She weighs socioeconomic factors (have middle-class twentysomethings been too coddled?) and explores how expectations might change if we recognize “emerging adulthood” as a distinct phase. The piece ends with a quandary: “[W]e’re caught in a weird moment, unsure whether to allow young people to keep exploring and questioning or to cut them off and tell them just to find something, anything, to put food on the table and get on with their lives.”

Screengrab of the New York Times Magazine web page.

I’m pretty sure the “we” here does not include me, but it happens I’ve been chewing on these questions a lot recently (being, you know, a twentysomething of restless and brooding mien), and I have a few thoughts.

My own theory, which I’ll throw into the ring to kick things off, is that the underlying assumption of this article is backward: It seems to me that when you look past the surface textures, the governing impulse of my generation isn’t the wanderlust-of-the-soul that Henig takes as a premise. It’s an abiding, somewhat alarming cultural conservatism. Connect the dots of the predicament she describes, and the picture that emerges isn’t of freewheeling disorder and deliberately protracted adolescence; it’s a limbo state caused by fixed value systems and pervasive risk-aversion.

I can elaborate as we keep chatting—but did anyone have a similar response? Or is it my 20s talking?

Ann Hulbert
I wrote a “Way We Live Now” piece for the Times a while back in which I suggested that Arnett’s new category perhaps says more about how parental figures think about young people than about how young people think about themselves (unless they’ve by now swallowed their elders’ theories). That is, baby boomers have discovered and labeled something as new—the better to obsess over it—that has actually been observed for a century or so in the developed world, not least among their own cohort. (As Henig’s article points out, Kenneth Keniston said exactly the same thing about baby boomers back when they were twentysomethings.) Listen to the twentysomething essayist Randolph Bourne, reflecting roughly a century ago on how “in our artificial civilization many young people at 25 are still on the threshold of activity.” And like you, Nathan, he didn’t diagnose carefree recklessness. All the turmoil had left them, he commented, feeling “startlingly old; one wonders if one will ever feel so old again.”

I think I’d agree with both of you in questioning the notion of adolescent limbo. It’s true that ages at marriage have crept higher and higher—yet it seems that young people no longer consider being married and having kids the key determinant of maturity. Polls suggest they rate other traditional milestones as more important: finding full-time work, becoming financially independent, and being able to support a family. With debt—an adult experience if there ever was one—more common among students than ever, those milestones presumably take longer to meet, though today’s young people hardly look like hopeless procrastinators. Taking those accomplishments into account (leaving out marriage and parenthood), roughly 80 percent of 30-year-olds in 1960 qualified as adult. Now 70 percent do. And if more of them these days hold off on families for longer, under the circumstances couldn’t that be the, well, grownup course to take, not a case of arrested development?

Jessica Grose
As a twentysomething, I’ve also observed something of a backlash to the freewheeling, protracted adolescence bemoaned by our boomer parents. There is some data that bears that out, though not necessarily enough to declare the trend much more than anecdotal: The age at first motherhood has recently dropped for the first time since statistics have been kept, and there is evidence that Gen Y is more marriage-minded than the generations immediately preceding us (though if you look at median age at first marriage on a state-by-state basis there is a lot of variation).

I also find it intriguing that the current complaint about our generation is that we put off growing up, considering the fact that just a few years ago, David Brooks was bemoaning the fact that we were a bunch of overly rigid, achievement-obsessed “organization kids.” This leads me to wonder if the current characterization of twentysomethings is almost exclusively based on the economy. Ann, as you point out, we still care very deeply about finding full time work and being able to support a family. We aren’t always becoming financially self-sufficient and meeting those particular goals of adulthood in our 20s, not because we’re not trying, but because good jobs are incredibly scarce.

Leon Neyfakh
Yeah, I’m not sure where these wide-eyed, hopeful wanderers are. I guess Berlin? Certainly all my friends in New York who are in their mid-20s feel like if they don’t get their act together in about five minutes there will be no hope for any success ever. The idea of “taking some time to explore and make mistakes,” at least professionally, is not one any of us would seriously consider: The consensus is that unless we specialize and excel before the “age 30 deadline” Arnett mentions, we will be doomed.

On the other hand, most of us also sincerely think there’s a good chance the world will end in our lifetimes, so maybe that also explains why we’re in such a hurry.

Noreen Malone
With all due respect, Leon, I’m not sure that your cohort in New York is even vaguely representative—people come here to achieve stuff, it’s too expensive to just hang out for kicks unless you’re parentally bankrolled on a grand scale. Meanwhile, some of my high school friends are touring with their band in South Korea or waitressing in Berkeley or hanging out joblessly in Champaign, Ill., deciding whether to finish that Ph.D. or not. Henig’s not wrong that these types exist.

But those are very vintage lifestyles, as Nathan suggests, and it’s true that my very first reaction to the piece was anxiety about not keeping pace with my peers in the wandering department—a sad little “organization kid” reaction to have. And my second was the snotty childish (or “emerging adult”) reaction that we can very loudly blame our parents, who bought into the myth of their own boomer exceptionalism, and transferred it to us.

In their narrative, as written by Henig, we’re not spoiled; we’re finding ourselves. That’s a very familiar concept to them. Henig even writes: “It’s reassuring, actually, to think of it as recursive, to imagine that there must always be a cohort of 20-somethings who take their time settling down, just as there must always be a cohort of 50-somethings who worry about it.”

My mom always sort of sardonically refers to kids my age as “petted and feted.” But she hung a clipping of mine on the fridge recently and yesterday sent me a care package that included quarters nicely rolled for laundry and apologizes for not funding, like, eco-tourism jaunts to Costa Rica, because all her friends do that for their kids. I feel underprivileged because she feels guilty about not providing something that is very much a luxury. It is very often the case, though, that people end up doing these jealousy-provoking programs and trips because they can’t get another job, and their parents are worried about what it will do for their momentum and even mental health to just hang out. Which wasn’t what happened at all during the last Depression, when people also got married much later and were jobless for long stretches.

Samantha Henig
I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot, having been privy to the whole editorial process: Robin Marantz Henig is my mother. (So watch how you talk about her!) I actually had the somewhat bizarre experience of giving her a “background” interview for the piece, during which she, in full reporter mode but still very much my mother, asked me such things as when I planned to get married and have kids. (I’m 26 now.) I, in turn, have given the same treatment to many of my friends, grilling them about whether they think they’re adults (an almost universal “no”) and when they think that will change (to which my favorite response was “when someone kills my parents and I have to avenge their death, like Batman”).

Jess, you’re right that a lot of the general discussion about the “Boomerang Generation” is anecdotal, but I think what’s interesting about the Times Magazine piece is that it takes it further than that, and I hope we can do the same here. Jeffrey Arnett, the scientist who’s pushing for “emerging adulthood” to be considered a unique psychological stage, makes the helpful comparison to adolescence, which, as my mother writes, is “a stage we take for granted but one that had to be recognized by psychologists, accepted by society and accommodated by institutions that served the young.” It’s easy—and reasonable—to point to external factors to explain this “emerging adulthood trend”: the bad economy forcing people to change jobs; advancements in fertility drugs allowing a later start at having kids.

There were similar changes a hundred years ago (being in school longer, delaying marriage and childbearing) that allowed people to recognize the existence of adolescence. But we now pretty widely recognize it as a phase distinct both from childhood and adulthood. So is “emerging adulthood” comparable?

One of the best arguments to me that emerging adulthood, like adolescence, is its own phase (which means it’s not just a Millennial thing or just a recession thing) is what’s happening in the brain. Just like adolescents might go through their “identity exploration” by turning to promiscuity and excessive drug use, or by locking themselves in the basement playing video games and never so much as touching a beer or a boob, “emerging adults,” too, can take a number of forms. But one thing that bonds adolescents across the board is what happens with their hormones. And scientists are seeing similar physical manifestations of “emerging adulthood,” with the new realization that the brain does not fully mature until age 25 or so. There’s definitely a cultural element to these phases (and, as you mentioned Jess, an economic one), but it looks like there’s a physical one, too.

The other interesting question to me is why all this matters, beyond the level of “Well now I can send this article to my parents and get them off my back.” (Unless your parent wrote the article, in which case she already sort of gets it.) On a policy level, we offer protections to children and to adolescents: They have a separate criminal justice system; they can be declared as dependents on taxes and covered by their parents’ health insurance; they are guaranteed a free education. If we do come to accept this new period between adolescence and adulthood as its own stage, what policy implications should that have? This is, of course, an age group that often enters the workplace laden with student debt. If a 22-year-old doesn’t even have a fully mature brain yet, should we really expect him to be on top of paying off his loans, managing his health care plan, and all the other hassles that come with full-on adulthood?

Nathan Heller
Thanks, Sam. One question we seem to be orbiting is whether the “changing timetable for adulthood” is really much of a change. I found myself slightly unclear—maybe you can set me straight—on how the various pieces of the Times article fit together: We’re given evidence on the one hand it’s a developmental stage and should be recognized as such (i.e., that it’s not unique to this moment), and on the other hand we’re told that something is different (and not just for economic reasons) among this current crop of twentysomethings.

Is this a new problem? Is it a problem at all? As I read that Times thesis paragraph I quoted earlier, I couldn’t help but hear echoes of Didion’s opening to “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” sounding the siren nearly half a century ago: “Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together.”

Let’s talk about those games. One of the things I thought the Henig piece was a little slippery on was whether twentysomethings hadn’t yet learned the games (an adolescent development issue) or whether they knew the games all too well but are having difficulty playing them (the drive to get to a stable place that Ann and Leon are pointing to). That’s partly what I was thinking, too, when I said I found a strain of cultural conservatism in my contemporaries: There seems to be an emphasis on playing the games we’ve inherited—or else kind of hanging around town, biding time till we have an opportunity to—rather than creating new games, which has been more the emphasis among young people at various points in the past. For all the inevitable comparisons to the ‘60s generation, in fact, this strikes me as a very different sensibility than what Didion, or for that matter Keniston, was describing. (Keniston, we should say by way of context, cast himself as perhaps the leading therapist figure for campus unrest in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s; he wrote prolifically on the subject for the mainstream press during those years and was one of a handful of campus academics who theorized the student movements as they were going on.)

Do people have other thoughts on this comparison to the state of youth circa 1970, which everyone, including David Brooks, seems to want to make? That Batman line you quoted, Sam, is great—and also interesting because the idea of being overshadowed by one’s parents, and their expectations, is a recurring motif of the ‘60s counterculture. Has it indeed all been done before—and, if so, done for the same reasons?

Samantha Henig
Nathan and Ann, I love thinking about the fact that for all the hubbub about Millennials flitting around and delaying responsibility, we’re actually no different than the boomers in the way we navigate the early adulthood years. I just stumbled on another example of that during my lunch break, from Martin Amis’$2 1973 novel The Rachel Papers, which I’m currently reading. Speculating on his upcoming 20th birthday, the narrator muses:

I’d have to throw in my lot with all those twitchy twenty-five-year-olds I had noticed about the place, the characters who find egocentricity numinous in itself. Intermittently articulate, something held back, a third eye hovering above their heads, intrigued and forever gripped by the contrast between them and everyone else.Look round: everything, except you, is (wait for it) quite unlike what you are, altogether dissimilar, a totally different kettle of fish.

Too true! Emerging adults are both different from everyone else and totally obsessed with talking about how different we are. I fear that by engaging in this very conversation I am shamelessly playing to type.

Still, I will engage a little further to ask whether you all think that labeling “emerging adulthood” as a psychological phase, as Arnett wants to do, would validate the hardships that come with it. We’re used to excusing, to some extent, the tantrums of a toddler or the melodrama of a high-schooler because we understand that they’re going through important steps of setting boundaries, exploring, forming their identity. And although plenty has been written about Gen Y twentysomethings hopping from job to job and shirking the family life, I feel like Arnett’s positive branding of this phase—not the entitled “extended adolescence” but the forward-looking “emerging adulthood”—does something new. If he’s right, then it’s not that we’re lazy or scared of commitment, nor is it as simple as being victims of a bad economy; we’re going through a necessary phase of development that will help us take on the grown-up responsibilities coming our way.

What fascinates me is how this could play out, if Arnett’s does eventually become the accepted position. How might the government cater to this group? Letting young people stay on their parents’ health insurance until age 26 was a good first step. Deferring student loan payments would be another. How about requiring landlords to offer six-month leases to twentysomethings? Or government-issued “career changing” grants that give you some money to start off on a new path, allowing you to accept, perhaps, that unpaid journalism internship that would otherwise be infeasible? Any other thoughts on policy implications?

Noreen Malone
Sam, I think I would answer your question about whether I feel like an adult with a yes—because I pay my own bills, with the exception of a spin cycle or two—and so I worry about money, which is the most adult feeling in the world, as Ann points out. But my friends who are unemployed but not funded by their parents worry even more about money, and some have gotten into credit card debt as a result, so they’re getting the sort of charred aftertaste of adulthood without even having gotten a bite of the real thing. (I can blame the boomers for passing on bad spending habits there, too, I suppose). And I am very much surprising myself with my conservatism here, but I don’t think the government catering to us more is necessarily the answer.

Student loan deferments and health care extensions I can totally get behind, but advocating for career-path change funding is sort of self-parodical. This isn’t—at least as set forth in the Times piece—a problem of true underprivilege. So, fine, our brains aren’t done developing until at least 25—but isn’t the last part and most important of an education figuring out for yourself how to move forward with your own wheels and steering? Teething is a painful growth process, too, but we don’t try to delay it. Wouldn’t funding for practical job training be better? Passing a better student-loan-reform bill? We’re upset because the implication behind all this hand-wringing is that we’re coddled dilettantes (as opposed to true bohemians, or nose-to-the-grindstoners, or something), so why do we want to formalize a structure for dilletantism?

Nathan Heller
Sam, thanks for the Rachel Papers quote—”characters who find egocentricity numinous in itself” is a fantastic Amis line. It makes me think of a sentence in Dave Eggers’ first book, which has not coincidentally become a canon text of self-absorbed twentysomethingdom, that goes something like (I don’t have it at my desk, so I’m paraphrasing): It is very difficult to make the lives of people in their early 20s seem interesting, even though those people were convinced their lives were extremely interesting at the time. I think we can safely declare that the particular egocentricity of this age is timeless.

That said, let’s keep talking about ourselves. I don’t have much of a mind for policy, so I’ll let smarter people around this table take up that baton—but I had the same thought as Noreen: All of the possible governmental gestures you enumerate, Sam, offer leniency. None apply constraint (in the way that being unable to vote, or drink, or rent a car does). Is there any concern that shaping policy around the idea of “emerging adulthood” could help create a hyperindulgent phase in which people have every adult privilege but few adult responsibilities? And that this could simply defer further, rather than eliminate, that painful grownup reckoning?

Samantha Henig
I pay my own bills too, Noreen, but I don’t feel like that makes me as an adult. I have plenty of grown-up responsibilities, but I’m not responsible for anyone but myself. If I want to live a totally selfish life (which arguably would still include paying my bills, for the selfish reason of wanting to avoid late fees and keep my utilities running), I can. No one is counting on me, and any wrong moves—romantic, career, financial—only hurt me. It’s that, more than my bank account or job title, that makes me feel like I’m not quite a grown-up. The stakes are just too low. And even though I’m not one for trips to Asia to find myself or whatever, the fact remains that if I wanted to and could afford to take one, there’d be nothing truly standing in my way. Like, say, a hungry toddler.

I told all of that to my mother during our off-the-record interview when she was working on this piece, and she raised the very reasonable question, “Well what about people who don’t have kids? Are they never adults?” I stammered about it then, and I can’t say that I’ve figured it out now. I’m thinking about George Clooney here. When, if ever, did George Clooney grow up?

Noreen Malone
By that definition, empty-nesters and retirees aren’t entirely adult, either—they can go off to Asia on a whim, too. Maybe that’s why our parents need to keep taking care of us, to feel adult. (And why they’re way more fun to split a bottle of wine with than parents of young children.)

I almost definitely was overselling my own maturity. I guess a better answer is that I feel more adult than I did a few years ago, because I have been living in the same place and paying the same bills, and something about that feels calcified in a certain way. Repetition sliding into settledness would not be a compelling advertorial slogan for adulthood, but that seems like at least a component of it, even if it’s not as clear a yardstick. Pre-kids, it’s rare to have a sea-change feeling.

Ann Hulbert
I’m with you, Noreen, in thinking that the last thing twentysomethings need is to feel that they are not only labeled by their elders, but also solicitously enabled by them. Sure, some things—like health insurance and better loan arrangements—will help. But almost inevitably, won’t more fine-tuned facilitating make the process of claiming, and feeling, independence more difficult, not less? Adolescence as we now know it has undergone something of that same fate, as the period became one deemed in need of adult defining, directing, underwriting. There was less room for the unsupervised rebelliousness that youth once enjoyed. There was also less of the kind of age-mixing that had been more common as a more monitored peer-culture emerged. It seems to me that the sense of being relegated to an adult-defined cohort is part, Sam, of what gets in the way of feeling grown up—perhaps even, or especially, when the well-intentioned defining is supposed to be developmentally liberating.

Jessica Grose
Isn’t New York Magazine always writing about how parents act like children, anyway (see “Grups“)? And what of the line in Greenberg: “The adults dress like children and the children dress like superheroes.”

Boomers also still don’t want to think they’re grown-ups. See those ridiculous Dennis Hopper surfing ads for Ameriprise? They’re going to turn retirement upside down!

I think we’re having a discussion now about thinking like adults vs. behaving like adults. None of us may feel like adults, but almost all of us certainly behave like them.

Nina Shen Rastogi
When I saw this line in Henig’s piece: “Arnett calls it ‘the age 30 deadline’ ” … I read the phrase as “the age 30 decline.” Which could be the title of my autobiography at the moment. I feel like I’m at a point in my life where the demarcation between “adult” and “not an adult” is shifting. In my 20s, I figured I’d be an adult whenever I had a cool-sounding job and learned how to stop dating assholes. But now it’s become a financial matter: I’ll be an adult when I have—or am on my way to having—enough money to buy a home, pay for a couple of kids’ tuitions, and be secure in the knowledge that I’ll be able to take care of my parents when they need me. And I’m so pissed no one explained to this to me earlier! Self-actualization is starting to seem like kind of a bum deal … and yet, I’ll never get over feeling like I’m a beautiful flower who deserves (and has a duty) to find herself. Call it the Scylla and Charybdis of the overeducated, middle-class, rapidly aging “emerging adult.”

Dan Check
Reading the piece, I kept thinking that the subhead should have been “The science behind why you don’t have grandkids yet.” This felt like an article by boomers, for boomers. I do think that the trend towards delayed marriage and child bearing is real—especially among the children of Times readers—but I don’t particularly like the idea of viewing my 20s through a scientific lens, or through our parent’s generations’ need for us to grow up.

By way of analogy: When I was in seventh grade, I had sex education in school.  It focused almost exclusively on STDs. I remember talking to my father—who is loving but reserved—about it in the car one day. He took a really long beat, blushed, and blurted out, “I hope they’re telling you that it’s fun, too.”  Needless to say, that was a detail that they’d omitted from the seventh-grade curriculum.

Like that junior high sex ed class, this piece just drains the enjoyment out of “early adulthood.” It’s not just anxiety, confusion, and failure to start a real career (although it is certainly all that). I had a great time: I graduated into a recession in NYC, had very little direction, and worked just as hard as I needed to pay my rent and go out every night.

Several years ago, I met my wife, got my first W-2 job, moved to D.C., and had a child. Today, when I got home, my 21-month-old son said, “I love you,” for the first time. Which is to say: I am now an adult of the most traditional sort. I don’t think that the “early adult” version of his father will be recognizable to him; parents have a way of keeping these stories from their children, and I doubt I’ll buck that trend.

So while I think that the phenomenon (at least for highly educated folks) is real, I also think that parents need to worry about it less and accept that their children are grown, whether or not they have full careers, spouses, or children. And people in their 20s should know that post-collegiate years are particularly disorienting, especially in a down economy, but that life is long and adults can have fun, too.

Leon Neyfakh
Many of the things people have said here made me think of a letter my friend Shane showed me once, from the political philosopher and social theorist (and Brazil’s former minister of strategic affairs) Roberto Unger to his young son. It’s the wisest thing I’ve ever read about growing up. I’d say more about it, but paragraphs like this leave me dumbstruck:

As we pass through childhood, each of us, a storehouse of alternative ways of becoming a person, imagines many different courses of action and of life he may later take. However, we cannot be everything in the world. We must choose a path, and reject other paths. This rejection, indispensable to our self-development, is also a mutilation. In choosing, as we must, we cast aside many aspects of our humanity. If, however, we cast them aside completely, we become less than fully human. We must continue somehow to feel the movements of the limbs we cut off. To learn how to feel them is the first major work of the imagination.

Nathan Heller
On that excellent note, let me thank all of you for your engaged and provocative thoughts on this subject—especially our readers, who have contributed enough smart ideas to sustain the discussion for weeks.

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