August 19, 2010

Making Our Own Milestones

Robin Marantz Henig of the New York Times asks: “Getting to what we would generally call adulthood is happening later than ever. But why?” in the August 18 article “What Is It About 20-Somethings?”

As an official member of the 20-Somethings for nine more days, I feel the urge to answer. (Not that I think the urge will magically pass the moment I turn thirty, but one never knows.) First of all, Henig is using five criteria for adulthood identified by sociologists: completing our education, moving out, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having kids. So why aren’t we completing all five steps and becoming stable “adults?” Maybe it’s because we just don’t buy it. We don't all see the value in these things that others have.

Henig references a comic in the New Yorker showing a young man hanging his PhD on the wall of his boyhood bedroom, his bewildered parents watching. Another shows a graduate in cap and gown clutching a college diploma and being strangled by a tassel labeled “debt.” Of the thirty students who graduated with a Masters of Architecture from UNL this spring, I know of two with jobs in the field, and they’re two who already had those jobs while in college. The prior year’s statistics weren’t much better. And the alternatives? Work at a coffee shop and earn just enough to make your student loan payments, move back in with the folks (or both), or continue with school. We’re going to be the most educated generation ever, for all the good it will do us.

So if a smart few aren’t buying the college recruiter’s spiel, I say good for them. Right now my brother is doing far better financially than I am on a high school diploma. He’s smart and he works hard and he’s no enormous student loan debt to repay. He’s hit all but the last of those five criteria, and that is by choice.

Yes, he and my sister-in-law have chosen not to have children. I don’t think that makes them any less adults. In fact, I think it’s rather responsible of them. Neither is what I would call a terribly nurturing individual (though they are both very loyal and loving) and they’ve made the conscious decision to spend their time, money, and attention on each other and the adult family they already have.

Right now I am reading the memoir of Mary Pipher, Seeking Peace, and the parents she describes in another era might have been better off not having children – a workaholic physician mother and a volatile, unsettled father. Of course, I’m sure she’s rather glad they followed societies' dictates, as am I, but that’s a red herring. She grew up into a good person more or less on her own, as did her siblings.

I think one could make a reasoned argument that today’s 20-somethings don’t buy into the “traditional” storyline. College is often more trouble than it’s worth if all you’re looking for is return on investment, to do your time and settle down into a “good” job, scarcer and scarcer these days, so you can get on with your “real” life. Alternately, it’s become a lifestyle choice, a chance to spend your years in a state of constant inquiry, and for many, myself included, that has tremendous appeal. Given that we haven’t bought into the former "real life" mantra, the questions that leaves us with leads many to the latter.

We’ve watched are grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, all follow the traditional path to adulthood and we’ve noticed they don’t seem any happier or better off than we are. The world doesn’t seem to have improved significantly since the end of World War II, which is when this so-called “traditional” pattern began, “…built on the expectation of an orderly progression in which kids finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and eventually retire to live on pensions supported by the next crop of kids who finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and on and on. The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain un¬tethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary (and often grueling) Teach for America jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life.” This tradition is only about sixty years old. Social security, built on the taxes of young people, only started in 1935. That’s old for a car, but young for a cultural tradition, a scant three or four generations. My grandmother was born before social security existed.

Yes, things are better now than they were for her. We have more freedoms and more tolerance and, most especially, more stuff, but on the heels of the Baby Boom, things have rather reached a plateau. We still have wars, poverty, violence, injustice, divisiveness, starvation, and innumerable other evils in the world. Earlier generations as a group, don’t appear to be happier, saner, wiser, or more productive individuals than later ones for having completed these so-called milestones. Perhaps that is a deceptive appearance and the value of these five traditions can only be judged by those who have achieved them, but surely we can learn something from observation alone.

I can’t speak for others, but what I observe is that achieving each of these five milestones involves compromise. Something is gained but something is also lost. What we 20-Somethings are unsure of is whether the first something is truly better than the second. Is finishing our education so we can get a “good” job, be financially independent, and afford our own home, car, and white picket fence truly better than continuing to explore the world, either physically through travel or intellectually through academia? We have so many questions and that piece of paper called a diploma does not seem to offer any answers. Nor does the nine to five or the house in the suburbs. Rather it only promises we will be too busy living that daily grind to continue seeking. At least, this is the outward appearance, and a scary one for many.

Nor do we necessarily believe our happiness is to be found in a partner or children. And many who do are legally forbad having either, in a grand tragedy of intolerance. I have no reason to believe my life would be any better were I married (having seen a number of lives made worse) nor that I could significantly improve the life of another through my consistent presence. I might like to hope both are true, but I’m not going to hinge my self-worth on either. The same is true of children, as I’ve discussed before. We have been raised to be independent, to think and do for ourselves, and that naturally makes pairing up a more difficult proposition than for past generations where expectations and roles were clearer (though not better).

So if we have yet to reach the five milestones – education, stability, independence, marriage, and children – perhaps it’s because we don’t think they’re worth it. Maybe this will change. Maybe the sociologists are right to label this “emerging adulthood” and we’ll all get there in time, if a little slower than previous generations. Their twenties will become our thirties.

Maybe we’ll replace these milestones with ones of our own. I’ve visited foreign countries. My parents can’t claim that, nor most of my grandparents. I've chosen my religion. I’ve completed three college degrees (diploma pending). I’ve held eighteen different jobs in fourteen years (usually two at a time), which means I have a remarkable variety of experience to draw from. I’ve published over three-hundred thousand words online (granted, not all of them good). I’ll call those my milestones and challenge other generations to do better (hard to do worse), but to do so on their own terms.

Tradition may have value, but it can’t simply be given if the recipient doesn't buy into it.

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