Is America ready for a new 'life stage'?

People in their 20s are now "emerging adults"

August 30, 2010|Susan Reimer

A recent New York Times Magazine story describing the 20s not only as a decade of growth and exploration but a full-fledged "life stage," like infancy or adolescence, has children and their parents churning with reactions ranging from "I told you so" to "harrumph."

Robin Marantz Henig described 20-somethings, so many of whom are not finding traction in education, work or romance, as not merely adrift but as butterflies in the cocoon stage.

This slouching toward adulthood is not a function of self-indulgent parents and a weak economy, she writes. Instead, it is a life stage best described as "emerging adulthood," one that will require the kind of institutional support that might soon drive social policy the way the "discovery" of adolescence changed the way we educate children and address the needs of teenagers.

On the sidelines of this debate are 20-somethings, and some 30-somethings, who finished college, got a job, found a mate and established a family and who now resent the fact that they missed out on an entire decade of lollygagging. Or they think this whole business is nonsense and that their younger brothers and sisters are wastrels and spoiled brats. Or they are in a fury with the stupid adults who think they understand them.

Also watching this discussion — which has been in the news for quite a while now — are parents, who are seeing their own dreams of retirement go up in smoke while learning that it is reasonable for their adult children to expect to be housed, fed and insured while they find themselves. All the while whining that the imaginary age 30 deadline is just sooooo much pressure!

There is good news in here for parents: It might not be our fault if our children seem irresponsible or self-involved. It might actually be neurological. Their pre-frontal cortex, which handles decision-making, is still catching up with the limbic system, where emotions come from and which exploded in adolescence. In fact, their brains might actually be 10 years behind.

I don't know about you, but that sounds like "off the hook" to me.

In her article, Ms. Henig suggest that if spending your 20s in self-exploration means you will make happier and more long-lasting choices in mates and work, then perhaps it is a good thing.

But if we are going to think of this as a legitimate life stage, like retirement, then we are going to have to straighten out some of our institutions, such as coordinating the ages at which young people can drink, vote, enlist, rent a car and be covered by their parents' insurance, she writes. And perhaps, she says, we will have to provide a stipend or a make-work program so the kids can support themselves during this developmental journey.

However, the fact that some of our children go straight to adulthood without dawdling suggests that this delayed start isn't essential — like puberty — but the function of all sorts of other factors, such as priviledge or indulgent parents.

The lesson for the 20-somethings in all of this is one their parents' generation, the boomers, have long ago learned; that it is no fun to be lumped together and labeled the same.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Her e-mail is susan.reimer@baltsun.com. Twitter.com/susanreimer.

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