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.