21st Century Changes on the Road to Adulthood

Opinion

on November 17 2011 2:09 PM
University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) campus
UCLA mistakenly told 894 prospective students that they were accepted. REUTERS

There's been an upsurge of reporting on the happenings of young Americans. If the news isn't reporting on the recession's impact on fresh graduates, they're noting that young Americans are marrying later in life and suffering from what some call failure to launch syndrome. As the New York Times so recently, and aptly, asked: What is it about Twenty-Somethings?

Emerging Adulthood is what we're seeing, says Jeffery Arnett, a professor at Clark University in Worchester, Mass. Emerging Adults are young individuals, primarily in their twenties, who are in a transition phase of life and, in his opinion, a new stage of development. This stage is neither an extended adolescence nor a young adulthood, as the former implies one is still under parental control and the latter implies adulthood has been reached, Arnett explains in his book Emerging Adulthood.

On the heels of Arnett's research comes new science unveiled by the National Institute of Mental Health, which has found that a person's brain has not fully matured until at least one's mid-twenties. Among the areas that are still maturing are the areas that control impulses, top-down control, and long-range planning.

And another critically defining mark of this generation of twenty-somethings, which I am a part of, is the fact that we were raised in the technological boom. This, for many of us, meant lifetime access to computers, mobile phones, and global social networking. Many of us have shared our innermost thoughts and pictures on blogs, in Facebook statuses, and tweets, all in the name of keeping our 600 closest friends aware of our happenings, at all times.  Only now are data revealing how these technologies have impacted our attention spans and memory processing, not to mention our self-image and egos.

In the meantime, my generation, another lost generation, as some are calling us, continues to drift somewhat aimlessly through our career and life processes. We're 'lost' not only because the economy has crippled many of our career paths, we're lost because we're navigating uncharted territory.  And given how uncharted all this territory is, should we really rush to define a new development stage? As New York Times journalist Robin Marantz Heing wrote, overprotecting and oversupporting [twenty-somethings] can sometimes make matters worse, turning the 'changing timetable of adulthood' into a self-fulfilling prophecy. One might ask, was it not so much overprotection and oversupport that got twenty-somethings to this point?

For generations before us there was a roadmap to adulthood: graduate college, get a job, move out of your parents house, get married, and have a baby. In most sociological views, that map remains the standard roadmap to adulthood. However, with 74 percent of twenty-somethings unmarried, the rise of twenty-somethings living with their parents, a national uptick in unwed pregnancies for women in their twenties, and the immeasurable number of job switches twenty-somethings are conducting, the charted path to adulthood is not looking like it used to.

Yet, surveys conducted by Michigan State, published by MonsterTRAK, provide compelling insight into the intersection twenty-somethings are creating between work and lifestyle choices. The first survey from MonsterTRAK, a nationally representative group of nine thousand young adults, ages 18 to 25, found that young people rank long-term career success and job characteristics related to quality of life (location, hours, etc.)  among the most important characteristics in their hunt for employment.

The findings indicate that while this generation may be seeming to wander through career choices aimlessly, they're looking for stability and freedom to love their work and enjoy their life, including marriage and parenthood, which surveys tell us are roles very important to them. I won't go into here how those values for work and family life might have positive effects on the divorce rate and family life in America, but it appears there is a correlation.

With 82 percent of individuals ages 18 to 32 expressing that marriage is in their future, according the National Healthy Marriage Institute, it wouldn't hurt twenty-somethings to know that studies from various sources, including PEW, tell us that married couples acquire more savings than their unmarried counterparts.

Meanwhile, men rated chance for promotion, good benefits, and higher income as more important to their job search.  Growing research from economist Eric Gould and others indicate that young married men in particular tend to work harder, earn more money, and have greater chances for promotion.

There appears to be an intersection in the road between what twenty-somethings desire and what is desirable for them and society. So call them emerging adults, twenty-somethings, or whatever you would like. But it seems to me attention shouldn't necessarily be on what we call them, but instead on how young people, employers, and families are adjusting to the changes our world is presenting us.

Meg McDonnell is a Phillips Foundation Robert Novak Journalism Fellow working on a project about young Americans and marriage trends. 

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