What Is It About 20-Somethings?

2010 August 31
by Turk Studzel

Why are so many people in their twenties taking so long to grow up? – N.Y. Times Magazine, August 18, 2010

Leave it to a writer for the Times to pose an interesting and perhaps important question—and then proceed to bury it under a steaming pile of horseshit. I was hoping that Robin Henig, author of the recent Sunday Magazine cover article “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” might throw a bit of light on her subject matter, which is of special relevance to the neighborhood I’ve called home since the mid-Nineties. This is an age-group that in the past half-decade has utterly transformed Williamsburg from a sleepy postindustrial ghetto into a trendy international icon of “hipsterism”—perhaps the first perfectly vacuous “ism” in human history: all pose, zero substance. Long mystified as to what makes this generation get out of bed in the morning, I thought that Ms. Henig might suggest some answers. I should’ve known better—her article is every bit equal to the seeming vacuity of her twentyish subjects, who according to her general thesis, are going through a newly-discovered “distinct life stage” called “emerging adulthood.” We’ll come back to this silliness in a moment…

So why are so many people in their twenties taking so long to grow up?

I, myself, might have phrased the question with less emphasis on a normalized concept of “maturity”—after all, many of America’s so-called “grownups” seem little more than outsized children (cf. George W. Bush)—but this is nitpicking. More to the point, rather than adopt the psychobabble of the academic charlatans she quotes, Henig could have asked about the impact of some very concrete sociopolitical developments—for instance, (1) the meltdown of the American Dream—the fact that youths can no longer expect to do as well, let alone better, than their parents—or (2) the wholesale outsourcing of the nation’s productive economy to China and India or (3) the advent of a Permanent Warfare State engaged in an increasing number of misbegotten imperialist conflicts or (4) the mounting threat of apocalyptic global warming and the apparent indifference of most “grownups.” Any one of these would have a major effect on a person’s outlook towards the future, and hence, adulthood; all four combined might very well convince a kid to stay in diapers. Nevertheless, not a word on any of it.

With a little imagination, Henig might have also approached her question from another tack—i.e., the thoroughgoing infantilization of public discourse, especially notable since 9/11, but with roots going back to the Reagan era. Why grow up when your entire culture is telling you not to? Why act like an adult when what’s expected of American consumers—we’re rarely “citizens” anymore—is a childish need for instant gratification? Why worry about personal “responsibility” when our ruling elites have elevated irresponsibility to a level that threatens our species’ very survival? Why worry about adult “reality” when our media and political leaders have done everything in their power to keep us swaddled in a cocoon of puerile fictions?

But, no, Ms. Henig considers none of this. Rather, the phenomena she identifies as “failure to launch” and “boomerang kids”—grown children moving back in with their parents—signifies to her something deeper in generational consciousness, perhaps a profound social evolution “better-suited to our neurological hard-wiring.” Highlighting the research of Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, “a psychology professor at Clark University,” Henig seeks to promote the theory that the twenties are now “a distinct life stage”—i.e., “emerging adulthood”—spawned by the increased educational demands of an “information-based economy,” the “acceptance of premarital sex, cohabitation and birth control,” and “young women feeling less rush to have babies” because of wider career options.

Yes, just as psychologists and sociologists a century ago identified and defined the category of persons we call “adolescents,” now the stage may be set for launching this new demographic of “emerging adults”—in effect, an extension of adolescence until thirty. What is needed, of course, is more research into the “changing timetable of adulthood,” and greater institutional tolerance for twenty-somethings’ special needs. Indeed, Henig thinks we may soon see a whole slew of new social initiatives designed with just this demographic in mind. Spread your wings and fly, fledgling grownups! An army of corporate marketers and social scientists are waiting to help you find yourself!

Like so much of what the Times passes off as social analysis, “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” ends up being a palliative for the paper’s professional middle-class readership, who are understandably worried about their children’s life-prospects at a time of deepening recession and corporate downsizing. The rhetorical technique, executed masterfully by Ms. Henig, is to shift the focus from the political-economic system, which no longer offers a palatable future for the young, to the “emerging adults” and their developmental tasks and needs. Couched in the arcane jargon of psychology and neurology, the needs of “emerging adults” do not have to include the ability to influence the political direction of their country—something best left to adult “experts”—nor do their needs include an ethical relationship to the rest of the world. No, “emerging adulthood” is a time for personal exploration, emotional growth, and synaptic development—there will be no call, in other words, for a replay of the rebellions of the Sixties.

But the hard fact is that in the coming years most American twenty-somethings will be denied the opportunity to extend their adolescence until age thirty. They will find themselves hoodwinked by military recruiters to fight in one of our ugly imperialist wars; they’ll be sucked into the maw of the penal system, victims of the new Jim Crow; they’ll become exploited factory workers in a new race to the bottom against workers of the Third World; or they’ll join the permanent underclass of the marginally employed and unemployed. To my mind, th best way for these youths to enter adulthood is to organize to wrest control of their lives from the capitalist elites—the very people who commission horseshit like “What Is It About 20-Somethings?”

More than ever, the question for “emerging adults” is which side are you on?

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