In Defense of Today’s 20-Somethings (And Our Parents)


I read the Times Magazine cover story this week with interest. The piece is billed as a meditation on the question: "Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?" It is presented alongside a batch of gauzy, sun-dappled photos–shot by Gen Y artists on their iPhones–of what seems to be an almost uniformly thin, good-looking, hip, and affluent set of people, doing activities like attending an outdoor concert, showing off a bunch of locally-grown greens, and hanging out on a rooftop.

Yes. These are all things I myself do. But still, I was irritated by the photos–which looked like the latest Apple or Levi's ad campaign (see above)–as well as the accusatory, reductive tone of the article's lede. There's nothing more annoying than a single member of one generation generalizing about all the members of another.

The actual piece, though, by Robin Marantz Henig, is more thoughtful than its packaging suggests. Henig outlines the debate among sociologists, brain scientists, and psychologists about whether "emerging adulthood"–roughly between the ages of 18 and 30–constitutes a universal, distinct life-stage, like adolescence, or if this period is experienced so differently depending on culture, class, race, geographic location, and so on that no accurate generalizations can be drawn about it.

I tend toward the latter argument, and here's why: Many of the trends Henig describes–toward later marriage, parenthood, and home-owning; young adult children living with parents; and jumping from job to job–are expressions less of some eternal 20-something desire to avoid responsibility than they are of the specific economic and social times in which Gen Y came of age. Consider the numbers: With unemployment for those aged 20-34 up 179 percent between 2006 and 2009, the average student debt burden at $23,186, wages fairly stagnant over the last several decades, and health benefits (when they exist at all) eating up a growing percentage of workers' incomes, is it any wonder that young adults are avoiding long-term financial commitments and depending more (when they can) on parents?

Then there are obvious cultural factors like the sexual revolution and the affinity of values between Boomer parents and Gen Y kids. Living at home no longer seriously disrupts many young adults' freedom to date or have a good time. Parents and their adult children have a lot in common and enjoy each others' company. Twenty-somethings are more and more cautious about marriage and kids–and why shouldn't we be? We lived through our parents' and friends' parents divorces. If possible, we'd like to avoid all that.

For a variety of reasons, I never lived at home after age 21, but I think we should be forgiving when we discuss why some people do. We shouldn't be too quick to blame cell-phone wielding "helicopter" parents (for "hovering" and failing to teach their kids independence) or 20-somethings themselves (for not "growing-up" in the traditional way). Rather, families are reacting to–and are all too often victimized by–systemic forces far beyond their control. 

I'm actually awed when I think about some of the hard-working young adults I know who've lived with their parents: two brothers, both with jobs, who help support and care for their unemployed mom as she undergoes chemotherapy. A college grad who just moved out of her parents' house after working full-time for nearly a year in a low-paid internship with no benefits. A close friend who moved cross-country to spend time with her father during the last months of his life, and then transitioned to a new career in a new city.

If these people aren't embracing the responsibilities of adulthood, I don't know who is.

9 thoughts on “In Defense of Today’s 20-Somethings (And Our Parents)

  1. kejia

    Dear Dana,

    I agree. In addition, I think the NYT article is forgetting about the long-term benefits of multi-generational homes.

    My 90 yr old father–who would hate to go to a nursing home–is delighted to be sharing a home with my boomer-era brother. My father helped us out as adults, and we now help him out. After all, the nuclear family is a relatively modern invention. My paternal great-grandmother lived in my grandmother’s house as a matter of course. Amicably, I might add.

    One day, Robin Marantz Henig will be a very old lady in a nursing home. At that time, she can think about the former 20-somethings who have chosen to take their elderly parents into their homes. Perhaps, as she uses her walker to navigate the institutional hallways, she will realize that these 20-somethings were not as immature as she had supposed.

    There’s a sweet story about my great-grandmother, who was born around 1865 and was the second wife of a civil war veteran. When my aunt was going through her papers, she found numerous affectionate letters to my g-grandmother from her stepchildren. When my aunt remarked on the fact to a cousin, the cousin replied, “Of course they wrote her. She used her money to put them through college!” These dependent young adults would have been educated in the late 19th century when a college education was far from the norm. They might have even lived at home when they were 20-somethings!

  2. Rob

    Debt is such a huge factor in this equation. The phenomenon of racking up tens of thousands in debt for a bachelor’s degree is a pretty brand new phenomenon. When our parents’ generation went to college, it was affordable, and a bachelor’s degree held a ton of value.

    I just can’t imagine anyone suggesting that it’s better to rush into parenthood in order to meet some arbitrary life milestone than to wait until you can actually afford it.

  3. Noam Ross

    I thought you would write about this. I thought a HUGE flaw in the article was its failure to criticize the five “markers of adulthood” described by sociologists: moving out, education, financial independence, marriage, and kids. After all, a generation that has been raised in so many divorced families has learned that maturity does not come with marriage or kids. Also, the idea of socially and financially independent nuclear families is recent and American. In most of the world and through most of history we’ve lived in more interdependent family groups.

  4. Dana

    Noam, that’s a great point. The article is definitely based on the assumption that those markers of adulthood are both legitimate and universal.

  5. Anemone

    I’m generation X, and I went through my midlife crisis in my 20s even though I probably would have been better off financially if I’d stayed on the straight and narrow. (I wasn’t able to live with my parents.) It’s not universal but I do think that deep cultural changes (not the economy) are changing when people feel ready to be adults (and what they have to do to get there). At the same time I can see how the economy is hard on 20-somethings today and how the concept of a new life stage would push a lot of buttons.

  6. jillian

    im hardly a 20something anymore (turn the big 30 in a month+) but i hated having to move back in with parents. after college then-boyfriend-now-husband moved to a big city in search of careers with some financial assistance from both our parents. after a year and change of living independently and doing quite well, we had a child and realised that “big city living” was just not going to be within our budget. so we moved back to his parents with the idea that it would just be until husband found a job and then we’d move out. 6 months tops. a little over two years, it taking about a year for husband to find a decent job, and other child later we finally were able to afford our own house.

    granted, we are where we are today because of those two years of subsidised living, but for various reasons, i HATED living “back home.” i felt like a free-loader, though we tried to pay our own way for most living expenses, and a child. most of all, i hated not having the control over MY family. i was a wife and mother and but my husband was still mainly “their son” and my children were perpetually at “gramma’s house.” it almost broke my marriage.

  7. Rebekah Z

    Very well-written and to the point.

    I think it is also worth examining cultures outside of the U.S.A. In South America and Europe, for example, most young people live at home until they graduate college and/or get married. To be 24, working a full-time job, and still living at home is not uncommon.

    Americans need to realize that we are not at the top anymore and we probably won’t be for a very long time. As times change, so should expectations.

    I myself am one of the twenty-somethings who chose to move abroad and find work…or as the original article described it; to “travel.” I applied for jobs for 6 months in the states where I received little to no replies. When the opportunity arose for me to use my unique skill set and work abroad, I leapt.

    I like to think that our generation is more focused on being happy with what we are doing as opposed to doing what we are “supposed” to.


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