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Yes, what is it about (liberal, white, upper middle class, college-educated) 20-somethings? 23 August 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Uncategorized.
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The scene opens. The morning light casts contrast across the bedsheets as the camera rolls directly overhead. The shot is overexposed, the palette washed out, and young lovers lie in each others’ arms. They smile and look away and back and talk about themselves and their futures. Her eyes are brown, his are blue. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Their hair lies at appropriately considered angles–he probably wears skinny jeans to bars and skinnier ties to work. She interned with the Forest Service in Oregon one summer but found herself tree-spiking with EarthFirst. They are both in their 20s, and they could star in any culture piece or any indie film whose director thinks he has finally subverted the rom-com.

Last week, they could have appeared in the New York Times piece on 20-somethings—several thousand words on the phenomenon that we’re evidently living, several thousands words that distill to this:

DURING THE PERIOD he calls emerging adulthood, Arnett says that young men and women are more self-focused than at any other time of life, less certain about the future and yet also more optimistic, no matter what their economic background. This is where the “sense of possibilities” comes in, he says; they have not yet tempered their ideal istic visions of what awaits. “The dreary, dead-end jobs, the bitter divorces, the disappointing and disrespectful children . . . none of them imagine that this is what the future holds for them,” he wrote. Ask them if they agree with the statement “I am very sure that someday I will get to where I want to be in life,” and 96 percent of them will say yes. But despite elements that are exciting, even exhilarating, about being this age, there is a downside, too: dread, frustration, uncertainty, a sense of not quite understanding the rules of the game. More than positive or negative feelings, what Arnett heard most often was ambivalence — beginning with his finding that 60 percent of his subjects told him they felt like both grown-ups and not-quite-grown-ups.

A time of possibility, yes, with no thought to the grim future ahead. Or potentially grim future anyway. But to how many people does this actually apply? How many 20-somethings actually live the life described, still tethered to parents, uncertain of the future, shirking responsibility all the way? Our opening couple qualifies by default–it’s the skinny tie and the liberal values (they’re sleeping together after all). But reporters at the Times enjoy creating trend stories where they see themselves, not necessarily a plurality of Americans.

To be a 20-something is certainly to be something, distinct from an adolescent and a mid-career 35 year-old, but reporter Robin Marantz Henig touches on only one broad explanation: a brain that continues to develop. Her star source admits that the “emerging adult” life stage only seems to fit for part of the population. But pay no heed to that, the story sweeps along. To be sure, it captured perfectly the experience so many of us have shared, yet to say the 25 year-old who became a mother in her teens and the engineering grad still living in his childhood home are walking the same path seems, well, wrong. Perhaps a similar optimism exists, but the Times cannot have it both ways: its assignment editors can’t continue to follow the role of culture only to ignore its influence in the case of 20-somethings.

The problem in offering this critique, of course, is that I can only speak anecdotally–the sum of my experiences has demonstrated the variety of lives being led by those born in the 1980s and 90s. The idea that our twenties universally represent a period of open doors cannot square with the reality that so many doors have already closed for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t attend college, who started a family at 19, who could never afford the cost of an unpaid internship on the other side of the county. By choice or by necessity, so many folks have missed out on a supposedly broad cultural phenomenon.

As fun as it is to wag a finger at the article, it’s really too bad that more 20-somethings don’t share the development Henig and Arnett describe. In his own academic articles, Arnett maintains that the idea of emerging adulthood applies only in industrialized nations, and because his experiences as a professor led him to the concept in the first place, I imagine the explanatory power here holds true mostly for college students and grads in recent decades.

We’re beholden to no mass movements, have grown up without the specter of nuclear holocaust, have never known or feared a national draft. We enjoy the luxury of possibility, the knowledge that should we fail in our endeavors, our parents can still pick up the pieces. We can take risks, and travel the world and ski-bum because we can fall  back on our education and our parents’ bank accounts if all hope appears lost–even if our parents have pledged no support whatsoever. No parent with the means to intervene will ignore self-destruction, except perhaps to edify. To follow Henig in her exploration is to acknowledge that so many factors beyond our control brought us to this point, these opportunities.

I’ve enjoyed the ride, but I’m sure not saying that everyone my age was on the same bus.


1. Mere - 24 August 2010

Well, are you still on the ride or feeling a little pessimistic?

magicdufflepud - 25 August 2010

Still on the ride, probably, but not feeling pessimistic. Not sure the two are mutually exclusive, though.

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