The August 22nd New York Times Magazine article on the idea of “emerging adulthood” was pretty widely circulated among friends via Facebook, Twitter, Gchat, and other outlets this past week. If you haven’t had a chance to read it, I’d highly recommend taking the time to chew your way through the dense ten pages, which touch on culture, developmental psychology, neuroscience, and a host of other arenas surrounding the topic of why we 20-somethings are following the more circuitous life routes that have become so common. And, at the end, the message I took away from the article was almost a feeling of relief: the author seemed to give us permission to take less linear life paths and take some time to figure things out before settling down.
People in their twenties are doing things differently than their parents or grandparents did, or at least that’s the case here in the United States. Pew put out a massive set of research findings on us Millenials a few months back, also worth looking at, and it seems to be no secret that the “graduate from high school/college, find a job, be in a relationship, get married, and have babies” progression doesn’t seem to be the norm anymore. A number of my 27, 28, and even 32 year old friends and colleagues haven’t tied the knot with anyone yet, and most are happily single, focusing on their careers, switching between jobs (and sometimes career fields), and trying to find the right fit. Why commit to a job until your reach retirement or a spouse until death do you part unless you really feel it’s right?
The NYT article lays forth both the arguments for and against confirming “emerging adulthood” as a discrete developmental phase, and talks extensively about this relatively new phenomenon, which I find interesting. European families have long encouraged their children to take gap years; you see many French couples who have chosen to happily cohabitate but never officially marry one another; and Australian 20- and 30-somethings were people I encountered quite often during a backpacking stint across Europe. And the Aussies weren’t just away on a short holiday; many of them were taking a year or more to do some globe-trotting of their own. Why? Because they wanted to (and because some Australian companies, after working for a certain number of years, given an extended, paid vacation to employees, or so I’ve been told).
It’s quite a luxury isn’t it, being able to pack up and travel, change career paths because you feel unsatisfied with your current job, know you can move back home with your parents if circumstances require, or the number of other scenarios discussed in the article? And, I would argue, one relatively unique to the developed world, which makes me side with the cohort that says this is not a discrete developmental phase. From my time living in Kenya and doing survey research, I would argue that the young Maasai women we interviewed, themselves in their teens and early-twenties, who were already running their own households and caring for children, didn’t feel as though they had the opportunity to hop a plane and spend a summer living and interning in Geneva. Most wouldn’t have the educational background to qualify for that experience anyways, nor would most have even been aware that such a choice was possible.
Countries, cultures, and communities are different, have varying expectations, and have a whole range of experiences considered to be “normal.” Examining examples of growing up around the globe, one would find everything from 30-something men still living at home and relishing their mother’s cooking, to children who became adults at 10 years of age when they lost their parents due to conflict, disease, or an accident. The NYT article notes more 20-somethings are leaning on their parents for financial and emotional support than ever before. Many of us are lucky enough to have parents willing to support our globe-trotting ambitions, who will fly out to help us move to a new city, provide “low interest loans” for grad school living expenses, and otherwise provide the financial and emotional safety net that lets us continue to throw caution to the wind for the better part of a decade, trusting that we’ll land on our feet (though I’m acutely aware that many others do not have that same luxury).
Looking across the widely varied cross section of what people “do” in their twenties, I can’t help but wonder if deciphering what should be normal and developmentally correct might be impossible, and the best thing to do might be for each of us to continue to carve our own paths, explore while we can, and try to figure out how to balance our ambitions, careers, personal lives, and finances with some semblance of autonomy and independence.
Disclaimer: I am not a developmental psychologist, and have limited knowledge of the academic side of psychology. My interest in the article was both personal and in the contrast across cultures.