It seems that almost every ten minutes a new article or report is published telling us that the youth of today are greedy, ungrateful douche bags. According to these reports, we’re all a bunch of fame-whores who, empowered by technology and a vague sense of entitlement, treat life like an all-you-can-eat buffet bar of relationships and experiences.
Consultants, trend analysts and social commentators’ line up to bombard us with pop-cultural insights and sweeping generalisations.
Of course, whenever there is talk of a generation gap it is easy to overstate the case. Depending on where they sit in the chronology, there is a tendency for the criticisms of social commentators to sound either resentful or smug. Or both.
The latest such article comes from Robin Marantz Henig for The New York Times. It is gratingly titled, What is it about 20-Somethings? Here are some choice excerpts:
We’re in the thick of what one sociologist calls “the changing timetable for adulthood.” Sociologists traditionally define the “transition to adulthood” as marked by five milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child.
The whole idea of milestones, of course, is something of an anachronism; it implies a lockstep march toward adulthood that is rare these days. Kids don’t shuffle along in unison on the road to maturity. They slouch toward adulthood at an uneven, highly individual pace. Some never achieve all five milestones, including those who are single or childless by choice, or unable to marry even if they wanted to because they’re gay. Others reach the milestones completely out of order, advancing professionally before committing to a monogamous relationship, having children young and marrying later, leaving school to go to work and returning to school long after becoming financially secure
With life spans stretching into the ninth decade, is it better for young people to experiment in their 20s before making choices they’ll have to live with for more than half a century? Or is adulthood now so malleable, with marriage and employment options constantly being reassessed, that young people would be better off just getting started on something, or else they’ll never catch up, consigned to remain always a few steps behind the early bloomers? Is emerging adulthood a rich and varied period for self-discovery, as Arnett says it is? Or is it just another term for self-indulgence?
The article quotes heavily from the work of Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a psychology professor at Clark University.
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.
As you can see, the insights are less than earth shattering.
In fact, the article tends to gloss over and leave unexplored some of the formative cultural experiences of 20-Somethings. You know, little things, like, the privilege of observing increased divorce rates, decreased birth rates, and the shift from full-time to part-time work, and from permanent to casual employment. It also ignores other seemingly relevant influences like the impact of technology and its association on contemporary youth development.
About the only value it does offer is perhaps a new moniker for the guys at Wieden+Kennedy or Saatchi’s to call the 20-Something cohort: Emerging Adults. On second thoughts, it’s probably nowhere near edgy enough for those guys.
You can read the full article here. Or, seeing as 20-Somethings have the collective attention span of a guppy, I recommend the much shorter 10 Most Infuriating Quotes from The Times’ Latest 20-Something Takedown at Flavorwire.
Author and journalist Anya Kamenetz over at The Huffington Post has a well reasoned response to The New York Times article. As she points out, what’s up with 20-Somthings isn’t supernatural – it’s just economic:
…the overwhelming reasons for this so-called “delayed transition” are NOT personal or psychological but economic. College costs 1000% more money than it did 30 years ago, yet it’s required for most living-wage jobs. Young people work longer hours while they’re in school, so it takes them longer to finish. Rent is higher too, and the youth unemployment rate is the highest for any age group. Young people have unprecedented amounts of student loan and credit card debt that persist into their 30s. Getting married, let alone starting a family, is difficult, even inadvisable, when you’re not financially stable.
Read Kamenetz’s article here.