Lengthening the road to adulthood
June 22, 2010
I’m actually about a week late on my response to this article. Sue me; I’ve been working on two separate productions this week.
In a June 11 article, “Long Road to Adulthood is Growing Longer,” the New York Times reports from the findings of researchers from the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, purporting to show that young people are actually taking longer to reach adulthood these days.
The disservice that this article does to young adults begins in its second sentence, declaring that “a growing body of research shows that the real Peter Pans are not the boomers, but the generations that have followed.”
This is a careless characterization of 20- and 30-somethings that, on top of everything else we’re facing, we really don’t need, thanks anyway Patricia Cohen. Peter Pan, remember, deliberately determined to remain a child forever. He wasn’t hobbled in his quest for maturity and independence by a major economic collapse, spiraling higher education costs, untenable health care and housing costs, and a 20% unemployment/under-employment rate. He chose eternal childhood and a fantasy existence over what he saw as the drudgery and hypocrisy of the adult world.
Really, New York Times, does that sound like American young adults of today?
Once again, like the article from the Chicago Tribune I wrote about a couple weeks ago, the Times reporter takes at face value, without much critical inquiry, assumptions that fewer young adults meeting certain commonly accepted markers of maturity actually means that young adults are less mature (which, as I’ve said before, I might agree that they are, but for far different reasons). There’s no consideration for the possibility that perhaps, in the face of wildly altered circumstances from those in which our parents and grandparents came of age, young adults are simply making different choices. And what’s more, that those choices might be rational and well-informed.
Early in the article, Cohen cites as an incidental example of adulthood taking longer to take hold the provision of the new health care law which allows adult children to stay on their parents’ health insurance policies up to age 26. But this is no indication whatsoever that young adults are less adult, but rather that wages have been stagnant for 30 years while insurance premiums have spiraled out of range of what a college graduate with an entry level or hourly wage job can reasonably afford. How does that reflect on our maturity, rather than on the unfairness and irrationality of our haphazard health care delivery systems?
Frank F. Furstenberg, leader of the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, is quoted as saying “A new period of life is emerging in which young people are no longer adolescents but not yet adults.”
Is it that we’re not yet adults, or that young adulthood now holds different challenges (among which I would include an educational system that actually discourages rather than encourages maturity and independence) and more choices than it used to? Most of the anecdotes contained in the article are about young women taking longer to complete their education, and thus marrying much later and delaying childbearing. But, among other factors, birth control is legal now. It was once assumed that young adult women would marry and have children by their early 20′s, simply because they didn’t have many other options. That wasn’t better for their personal maturity, to do what society assumed they would because they lacked compelling career options; it was far worse. (If you haven’t read it, Betty Friedan makes the case eloquently in The Feminine Mystique, a book I enjoyed and identified with far more than I thought I would.) But the Times article laments that according to a study out from Princeton, “Marriage and parenthood–once seen as prerequisites for adulthood–are now viewed more as lifestyle choices.”
I’m sorry, a “lifestyle choice” is whether to live on the East Side or West Side, to drive or bike to work, to cook at home or eat out, to get a cat or a dog. To marry and have children are serious, life-altering choices involving the fates of at least two other people. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to do those things, but to do either right now would completely upend my career pursuits and independence.
Indeed, I don’t see anyone among the people profiled in the article who are Peter Pans–deliberate children–but rather people whose careers or economic circumstances necessitated further education, whose life trajectories simply didn’t take the courses they assumed they would (and how many people’s actually do?), and in the cases of the marriage-delayers, who honestly took their feelings into account in wisely not rushing into marriage at 23. When did honest self-reflection in delaying a major life decision become lack of maturity?
Things get more interesting on the website of the newsletter for the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood. It seems that much of this group’s current research agenda is based on a vision of the past that, well, isn’t all that true. One of the postulates shaping their body of research is stated as being that
The time period between age 18 and 34 has changed dramatically in the past several decades. Where once young adults moved in lockstep progression through the stages of adulthood—graduating from high school, leaving home, going to college or getting a job, marrying, and starting a family—today this path is no longer ordered and sequential.
Sure, it’s true that young adulthood has changed dramatically in the past few decades. But the assumption and ordering of most of these rites of passage are incredibly skewed towards the middle and upper classes of the mid- to late 20th century. This sequence was far from the lockstep norm for most people, for most of American history. Most states had no compulsory education through the end of the 19th century; it was not assumed that most people would graduate from, or even attend, high school. There has never been a time when most people graduated from or even attended college. Prior to the industrial revolution, many people never “got a job,” but learned a trade through an apprenticeship to a family member or neighbor, or inherited a family business or a farm. It wasn’t the lockstep following of these steps that used to make people adults by their late teens; it was the fact that they’d had to do things for themselves their entire lives.
Public awareness and social policies have not yet caught up to the changes. Many features of U.S. society operate on the assumption that reaching adulthood occurs much earlier than it ordinarily does today.
But how is it established that adulthood is actually occurring later? I agree that many social policies and institutions don’t serve young adults well, but that it’s because they presume a level of economic enfranchisement that’s out of reach for young graduates in the current job market.
The website criticizes earlier media portrayals of “Twixsters” and “Adultolescents,” and says that the Research Network “takes young people seriously.” But that is not the implication of what its leader, Mr. Furstenberg, said to the New York Times: “We have not developed and strengthened institutions to serve young adults, because we’re still living with the archaic idea that people enter adulthood in their late teens or early twenties.”
But I don’t see any likelihood that this view is going to result in young adults being taken more seriously, rather than less. If we’re shaping policies and institutions on a new paradigm that 18-34 year-olds (yep, that’s the age range given for this new period of young adulthood on the website) are in fact not effective adults, how does that not lead to taking them less seriously, as able to be self-directing and fully engaged in and responsible for their own lives, choices, and contributions to society and democracy? What Furstenberg blindly and rather deceptively confuses, as the Chicago Tribune article did, is personal maturity and capacity for independence with achievement of economic and material goals.
If it’s an archaic idea that we become adults in our late teens or early twenties, then I think we need to start looking backwards for guidance on how to take young adults seriously. Because this forward-looking vision of Mr. Furstenberg’s of recognizing ever less-adult “adults” is not going to help us establish realistic ways to help people reach self-sufficient adulthood in a timely manner. It will further justify the social exclusion of young adults from full enfranchisement and economic participation. It asks us to further infantilize young adults rather than seriously considering remedies to the economic circumstances that make full independence so difficult. This view itself is helping to lengthen the road to adulthood, not providing solutions for young adults who are seeking greater independence.