In 1948, the poet Philip Larkin did something that today is rare for people in their mid-twenties: he left behind the “the slag / Of burnt-out childhood” and became an adult.
Rare, that is, according to the nation’s most authoritative media outlets – where journalists seem to be enthralled by people in their twenties who just won’t grow up.
There are many ways to fall short of the expectations of adulthood: in love, work, financial independence, attitude, attire, and education.
According to a 2010 New York Times Magazine story by Robin Marantz Henig:
“[Today’s] 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.”
In a similar Time article from five years earlier, Lev Grossman cast a wide net on “twixters,” which he described as:
“Full-grown men and women who still live with their parents, who dress and talk and party as they did in their teens, hopping from job to job and date to date, having fun but seemingly going nowhere.”
Henig and Grossman make sophisticated cases, but Morley Safer doesn’t come close in a shockingly mean-spirited 2008 60 Minutes segment on “millennials,” which argues that 20-somethings are “narcissistic praise-hounds,” too coddled to contribute in the workforce.
The millennials I know don’t often resemble the ones I see in journalists’ nervous portraits.
The coverage devoted to Americans in their twenties creates a category so encompassing that I wonder if it delineates anything more than the ever-shifting stereotypes about “kids these days.”
Plato complained about the youth, not that you need to go back to antiquity for examples. As Claude Fischer, a sociologist at the University California, Berkeley, points out, “There was the James Dean teenage-rebel media obsession of the 1950s; the college dropout hippie obsession of the 1970s . . .”
Still, could the worriers finally be on to something? Are people in their twenties at long last going nowhere?
In fact, available data, always open to a range of interpretation, don’t paint a clear picture of 20-somethings in a unique state of arrest.
Yes, people are marrying later than ever, but that reflects a roughly 60-year trend. In any case, if nuptials are a milestone of maturity in an age of two-month celebrity marriages, then we need new milestones.
Employment numbers are no more supportive of the going-nowhere thesis. Between January of 2009 and today, unemployment among 25–29 year-olds was consistently higher than 10 percent, but that’s nothing new. The numbers were similar in the recession of 1982–1983, the last time unemployment reached the overall levels we’ve seen in the Great Recession.
What about financial independence? Presumably today’s 20-somethings, facing high unemployment and unprecedented tuition debt, should be far behind the curve of history. But current rates of home-ownership among young people look much as they have for decades, according to NYU economist Edward Wolff. Wolff’s data lump everyone under 35 into one category, and in 2010, 37.5 percent of them owned a home. Unsurprisingly, the ownership rate was higher during the housing bubble of the 2000s, but the average since the beginning of data collection in 1983 is not far off at 38.8 percent.
Given the mishmash of inconclusive data, it hardly seems reasonable to entertain, as Grossman and Henig do, the need for new state-funded mechanisms to support drifting 20-somethings—especially since that drift is largely financed by economic privilege. Maybe more unemployment support would help, but should the state really pay for traveling, blogging and acting lessons? And maybe we should have more debt relief or caps on college tuition, but those policies arguably make sense no matter the state of 20-somethings.
The millennials I know—and as a 27-year-old, I know many—don’t often resemble the ones I see in journalists’ nervous portraits.
We do face many challenges, most notably the economics of being young during a recession we aren’t responsible for. But my peers are working hard on careers, graduate school, creative projects, and relationships.
Where some journalists see worrisome delay, we see life unfolding in real-time, at a pace we don’t really control. Where they seem to believe that non-conjugal love, advanced degrees, traveling, and rented apartments are barricades against adult life, we can’t help but shrug. I don’t know a single person my age who cares whether our parents’ generation classifies us as adults. When I share these stories with friends—usually via Facebook, where our covens of adolescence gather—I get nothing but eye rolling in response. Are we the only ones who appreciate that immaturity happens at every age and stage of life?
Forging a neat division between adulthood and childhood is probably a fool’s errand. The shift is gradual and imperceptible. You couldn’t have measured it in Larkin’s case. For him, becoming an adult meant recognizing that “each event is / Freighted with a source-encrusting doubt,” that uncertainty is ever-present and we “Live on what is.”
That sounds wise to me, but then, he was a scribbling and searching artist, the media’s very model of a 20-something going nowhere.