What it is about 20-somethings

This upcoming Sunday Times’ Magazine article called “What is it about 20-somethings?” is sure to be a must-read among people my age, if the number of my friends who have it on their gchat status is any indication. The article looks at the trend among people in their 20s of putting off the milestones that characterize adulthood, like starting a career, a family or buying a house. Author Robin Marantz Henig profiles a psychologist who believes the 20s is a distinct stage of life for the brain, one which he calls “emerging adulthood,” because it falls between adolescence and adulthood. Unfortunately, because Henig focuses so singularly on his work, and doesn’t actually feature any 20-somethings prominently in the article, she offers little insight into why my generation isn’t getting married or starting careers as quickly as we used to. My own opinion, based on my own life and the lives of people I know, is that there are a few pretty simple reasons, and that the trend is class-based. While members of various classes may all be starting their adulthood later, it is for different reasons.

One reason is student loans. A lot of people have a lot of student loans from expensive colleges and grad programs. It is scary to start a family on loans. A second reason is that there are fewer stable careers available and more turnover. People do not generally work their way up company ladders anymore, in part because they reach ceilings above which stand people with masters degrees (which help one advance, even if not actually worthwhile) or because their jobs lack the sort of benefits that jobs used to have, like pensions, accrued vacation time and good health care plans. Also, people work so hard that they get burned out and feel the best thing to do is leave for greener pastures. And there is no way in heck it’s a good idea to buy a house in one’s 20s right now unless you’re one of the wealthy few, want to live in a cheap subdivision that has been battered by the housing crisis, or have somehow saved up a lot of money.

As the article suggests, delayed adulthood is also inspired by the numerous choices many twenty-somethings have, or feel they have, after college, whether to travel abroad, volunteer at home or Teach for America. But this is limited to a pretty small group who tend to have gone to the elite universities.

For me, the present uncertainty above all is why I’m delaying certain adulthood milestones, particularly, getting married, having children and buying a house. But at this point, I’m not even certain that it would be worth going after them, after reading so much about the instability that resulted from people’s efforts to buy themselves stability, in the form of homes, expensive higher educations and the like. At this uncertain point in history, it may make more sense to take a different path, one that eschews the false markers of adulthood and embraces the real ones, like self-reliance and shrewd risk-taking. It is a direction at least I’m willing to move toward.

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About elainemeyer
I'm a writer and editor. I work in communications at the Columbia School of Public Health, where I write about epidemiologic research. In the past I've worked as a reporter and studied journalism and history in school.

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