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The Growing-ups: A modern life stage for 18- to 29-year-olds

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Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Professor of Psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts and an author of Getting to 30: A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years, writes in Aeon:

I will readily admit, it took me a long time to grow up. I graduated from Michigan State University in 1980 at the age of 23 with a freshly printed bachelor’s degree in psychology and no idea what I really wanted to do. I’d learned to play guitar in college and, intent on avoiding the drudgery of a crummy low-paying job, I now worked up a repertoire of songs large enough to enable me to make money by playing in bars and restaurants. I made enough to live on, but only because I had moved back home with my parents and didn’t have to pay for rent or groceries.

After a couple of years, I entered graduate school in psychology, but even after I got my PhD four years later, I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do. In the romantic department, I was no further along either. I’d had lots of girlfriends by then, but never come close to marriage. Eventually, I did find my way in love and work, but it took many years more: I got my first long-term job (as a professor) at 35, married at 36, and had my kids (twins) at 42.

When my research on how young people make their way to adulthood first began, the initial inspiration was my own odyssey. I was in my early 30s and thinking about how long it was taking me – and lots of my peers – to get there. But I have maintained my research focus on these 18- to 29-year-olds because I found they were so rewarding to talk to.

I had studied adolescents for years before that, mostly high-school students, focusing on their media use and risky behaviours such as driving while intoxicated. I enjoyed this research, but found that adolescents often clammed up when I tried to interview them. They were wary of me – a potentially intrusive adult – but it seemed that they also lacked self-reflection and self-understanding. Their egocentrism prevented them from being able to take a step back and reflect thoughtfully on what they did and why they did it.

But ‘emerging adults’, in the 18-29 age group, did have that ability, and not only those who were college-educated like me. My most memorable interviews were with emerging adults whose experiences were totally different from mine – those who had been in prison, or abused as children, or raised by a drug-addicted single mom. Across the board, I found them to be insightful about what they had experienced and who they were becoming now. It was this insightfulness, expressed with humour and everyday eloquence, that led me to devote my career to understanding them and explaining them to others.

Since then, I’ve written two books about this distinct life stage, in part to help emerging adults and their parents understand the longer road to adulthood in America today. I’ve also directed two national surveys, the Clark Poll on Emerging Adults in 2012 and 2013, which have given us a picture of this age group nationwide.

I was to discover, however, that there were many others who didn’t share my warm and benevolent views of emerging adults. Quite the contrary.

In 2004, after a decade of interviewing 18- to 29-year-olds in various parts of the US, I published a book announcing the theory of emerging adulthood as a new life stage between adolescence and adulthood, and summarising what I’d found in my research, on topics ranging from relations with parents to love and sex, education, work and religious beliefs. Prior to publication, TIME magazine told my publisher, Oxford University Press, that they were planning to run a cover story inspired by the book. Naturally, I was excited. However, when the TIME piece came out, it was shockingly bad. The cover photo showed a young man clad in a dress shirt and pants, sitting in a sandbox. Readers were invited to meet today’s young people, ‘who live off their parents, bounce from job to job and hop from mate to mate… THEY JUST WON’T GROW UP’. The text was mostly a lament on their deficiencies and an invitation to ridicule them for taking longer to enter marriage, parenthood and full-time work than their parents or grandparents did.

Ten years later, I am no longer surprised by this view of emerging adults, but I remain puzzled and dismayed. I have spent a regrettable amount of my time in the past decade playing Whac-A-Mole with the derogatory descriptions that my fellow Americans reflexively apply to emerging adults: they’re lazy, selfish and they never want to grow up. Oh, and they’re worse than ever, certainly worse than the adults now criticising them were in their own youth. Is there is any truth to these stereotypes or are they just unfair?

One of the most common insults to today’s emerging adults is that they’re lazy. According to this view, young people are ‘slackers’ who avoid work whenever possible, preferring to sponge off their parents for as long as they can get away with it. One of the reasons they avoid real work is that have an inflated sense of entitlement. They expect work to be fun, and if it’s not fun, they refuse to do it.

It’s true that emerging adults have high hopes for work, and even, yes, a sense of being entitled to enjoy their work. Ian, a 22-year-old who was interviewed for my 2004 book, chose to go into journalism, even though he knew that: ‘If I’m a journalist making $20,000 a year, my dad [a wealthy physician] makes vastly more than that.’ More important than the money was finding a job that he could love. ‘If I enjoy thoroughly doing what I’m doing in life, then I would be better off than my dad.’ Emerging adults enter the workplace seeking what I call identity-based work, meaning a job that will be a source of self-fulfillment and make the most of their talents and interests. They want a job that they will look forward to doing when they get up each morning.

You might think that this is not a realistic expectation for work, and you are right. But keep in mind it was their parents’ generation, the Baby Boomers, who invented the idea that work should be fun. No one had ever thought so before. Baby Boomers rejected the traditional assumption that work was a dreary but unavoidable part of the human condition. They declared that they didn’t want to spend their lives simply slaving away – and their children grew up in this new world, assuming that work should be meaningful and self-fulfilling. Now that those children are emerging adults, their Baby Boomer parents and employers grumble at their presumptuousness.

So, yes, emerging adults today have high and often unrealistic expectations for work, but lazy? That’s laughably false. While they look for their elusive dream job, they don’t simply sit around and play video games and update their Facebook page all day. The great majority of them spend most of their twenties in a series of unglamorous, low-paying jobs as they search for something better. The average American holds ten different jobs between the ages of 18 and 29, and most of them are the kinds of jobs that promise little respect and less money. Have you noticed who is waiting on your table at the restaurant, working the counter at the retail store, stocking the shelves at the supermarket? Most of them are emerging adults. Many of them are working and attending school at the same time, trying to make ends meet while they strive to move up the ladder. It’s unfair to tar the many hard-working emerging adults with a stereotype that is true for only a small percentage of them.

Is striving for identity-based work only for the middle class and the wealthy, who have the advantages in American society? Yes and no. The aspiration stretches across social classes: in the national Clark poll, 79 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds agreed that: ‘It is more important for me to enjoy my job than to make a lot of money,’ and there were no differences across social class backgrounds (represented by mother’s education). However, the reality is quite different from the aspiration. Young Americans from lower social class backgrounds are far less likely than those from higher social backgrounds to obtain a college education and, without a college degree, jobs of any kind are scarce in the modern information-based economy. The current US unemployment rate is twice as high for those with only a high-school degree or less than it is for those with a four-year college degree. In the national Clark poll, emerging adults from lower social class backgrounds were far more likely than their more advantaged peers to agree that ‘I have not been able to find enough financial support to get the education I need.’ That’s not their fault. It is the fault of their society which short-sightedly fails to fund education and training adequately, and thereby squanders the potential and aspirations of the young.

Another widespread slur against emerging adults is that they are selfish. Some American researchers – most notoriously Jean Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University and a well-known writer and speaker – claim that young people today have grown more ‘narcissistic’ compared with their equivalents 30 or 40 years ago. This claim is based mainly on surveys of college students that show increased levels of self-esteem. Today’s students are more likely than in the past to agree with statements such as: ‘I am an important person.’

With this stereotype, too, there is a grain of truth that has been vastly overblown. It’s probably true that most emerging adults today grow up with a higher level of self-esteem than in previous generations. Their Baby Boomer parents have been telling them from the cradle onward: ‘You’re special!’ ‘You can be whatever you want to be!’ ‘Dream big dreams!’ and the like. Popular culture has reinforced these messages, in movies, television shows and songs. Well, they actually believed it. In the national Clark poll, nearly all 18- to 29-year-olds (89 per cent) agreed with the statement: ‘I am confident that eventually I will get what I want out of life.’

But – and this is the key point – that doesn’t mean they’re selfish. It certainly doesn’t mean they are a generation of narcissists. It simply means that they are highly confident in their abilities to make a good life for themselves, whatever obstacles they might face. Would we prefer that they cringed before the challenges of adulthood? I have come to see their high self-esteem and confidence as good psychological armour for entering a tough adult world. Most people get knocked down more than once in the course of their 20s, by love, by work, by any number of dream bubbles that are popped by rude reality. High self-esteem is what allows them to get up again and continue moving forward. For example, Nicole, 25, grew up in poverty as the oldest of four children in a household with a mentally disabled mother and no father. Her goals for her life have been repeatedly delayed or driven off track by her family responsibilities. Nevertheless, she is pursuing a college degree and is determined to reach her ultimate goal of getting a PhD. Her self-belief is what has enabled her to overcome a chaotic childhood full of disadvantages. ‘It’s like, the more you come at me, the stronger I’m going to be,’ she told me when I interviewed her for my 2004 book.

The ‘selfish’ slur also ignores how idealistic and generous-hearted today’s emerging adults are. In the national Clark poll, 86 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds agreed that: ‘It is important to me to have a career that does some good in the world.’ And it is not just an idealistic aspiration: they are, in fact, more likely to volunteer their time and energy for serving others than their parents did at the same age, according to national surveys by the US Higher Education Research Institute.

As for the claim that they never want to grow up, it’s true that entering the full range of adult responsibilities comes later than it did before, in terms of completing education and entering marriage and parenthood. Many emerging adults are ambivalent about adulthood and in no hurry to get there. In the national Clark poll, 35 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds agreed with the statement: ‘If I could have my way, I would never become an adult.’ That’s not a majority, but it’s a lot, and that 35 per cent is probably the basis of the stereotype. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

18 August 2018 at 9:43 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Science

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