New `odyssey' stage disconcerts parents

The Middle Ages

October 28, 2007|By SUSAN REIMER

A social scientist defined it. A respected journalist named it. And parents are buzzing about it.

It is the "odyssey," a little understood and very disconcerting - for parents - "decade of wandering" that occurs between adolescence and adulthood.

Research by William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, describes an economic and social shake-up that has jumbled - or postponed drastically - the traditional sequence we thought our children would follow into adulthood: education, maybe a little more education, a job that morphs into a career, marriage and family.

David Brooks, writing in The New York Times, gave this new developmental stage its name, suggesting a frustrating and drawn-out journey of Homeric proportions for our children toward some unknown point in the future.

Instead of following the trajectory into adulthood that we parents can identify (no matter what detours we might have taken ourselves), our twentysomethings are wandering in and out of college and grad school, taking up causes or temporary jobs, traveling, drifting in and out of relationships - as well as their old bedrooms at home - and failing to launch until perhaps their early or mid-30s.

And they are driving their parents nuts.

"We have a lot of parents who are wringing their hands and biting their tongues simultaneously," says Galston, who has a twentysomething son of his own.

Galston has identified the social dynamics that have created this period of wandering for our children, and it started with what he calls a "revolution in the relative bargaining power between young men and young women."

Over the past 25 years, women have come to outnumber men in college enrollment and graduation, their numbers are exploding in the work force and their salaries have climbed while the salaries of their male counterparts have stagnated.

"This involves interesting new issues in social relationships," says Galston, putting it mildly.

It is more than a little awkwardness over who picks up the check.

A woman is no longer compelled to settle into marriage with some random guy who might very well have less education and make less money than she does.

Educated women can now achieve financial independence, status and purpose (and, distressingly, have children) without bothering with marriage.

The second element of this new stage in the lives of our children is what Galston calls "a pattern of postponement."

"However much education you were going to get, you got. When you were finished, you went to work. And it wasn't too long before a job became your career," says Galston.

This has been replaced by a kind of stop-and-go pattern: some education, maybe some travel, some short-term jobs, maybe a little more school, maybe some altruistic pursuits.

"It isn't until some years later that this stop-go pattern comes to an end in something that looks like a career," Galston says.

For parents, the bottom line is the continued financial support of our drifty children, including time back under the roof with us.

But apparently we don't mind as much as we would have minded moving back home with our own parents.

At every age between 20 and 30, the number of young men and women living with their parents is higher by several percentage points than it was in 1960, and it is often of economic necessity.

Even the children who jump into work and career need time in this stagnant economy to earn enough to support themselves in the style to which we allowed them to become accustomed.

But there isn't the kind of intergenerational friction that characterized our own 20s because, Galston says, there has been a "narrowing of the attitude gap."

In layman's terms, we and our children agree on a lot of hot-button issues, such as abortion, civil liberties, gender roles, sexuality and confidence in institutions, so there is less to fight about.

(I left home immediately after college and I didn't even go home for Sunday dinners until my own parents finally gave up on Nixon and forgave me for moving in with a boyfriend.)

This is very unfamiliar territory for parents. The leaving of the nest is not happening very quickly, and it is not happening in a sequence of life events that we recognize.

Since Galston's conclusions appeared in The New York Times, he has been besieged by questions from worried parents who are suddenly working without a script.

We thought the teen years were tough and we sighed with relief when they ended, he says.

"But now there is this prolonged period of worry and uncertainty.

"Parents are much more disoriented by the third decade of their children's lives than by the second decade, and that's a big change."

Next Sunday: What's a parent to do?

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