Last week’s New York Times article (What Is It About 20-Somethings?, Aug 18, 2010) on the alleged phenomenon of young people in the US who are either unwilling or unable o cut the cord and assume full-blown adulthood (i.e. financial and domestic independence) has succeeded in ruffling a few feathers.
Critics refuted the article’s basic premise that this trend has become so commonplace it merits an entirely new categorization of mental development (“emerging adulthood,” which is now supposed to follow “adolescence” and precede “adulthood”) as being “one-sided, un-inclusive, and exaggerated,” primarily because it allegedly ignores the “many success stories” and the “unprecedented levels of accomplishment and achievement of so many of its members” (i.e. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg).
Indeed, there has been a long tradition of older generations decrying the perceived shortcomings of youth in society (“Get a haircut, you damn hippy!”), which is certainly not specific to American society. And taken in a Chinese context, this debate might seem culturally, or in this case, America-specific – many young Chinese, especially in the big cities, continue to live at home and depend on their parents far into their 20s, and in some cases, their 30s.
However one can still find parallels between the two societies – after all, for every “coddled urban rich kid” who may still be suckling at their parents’ proverbial teat, there are probably hundreds, if not thousands of young migrant workers who have had to strike out on their own and become breadwinners for themselves and extended families (a trend that the NYT article also acknowledges).
Speaking as a once-coddled 20-something myself, I tend to agree with the NYT on this one. It seems that as each successive generation “comes of age” it becomes harder and harder to go it alone – although economic factors (as in hard luck family backgrounds and global economic downturns) can certainly influence this, as many point out.
But the real crux of the argument lies in the question of how much of this phenomenon is culturally and even temporally constructed? I, for one, see parallels between Chinese and American society in the concept of “helicopter parents,” a term that the NYT describes as “heavily invested parents who hover over their children, swooping down to take charge and solve problems at a moment’s notice.” Quite frankly as parents (and the children of our own parents), we’ve all got “hovering issues” to deal with.
The other main question is whether or not recognizing “emerging adulthood” is a good thing. To quote:
“Does that mean it’s a good thing to let 20-somethings meander — or even to encourage them to meander — before they settle down? That’s the question that plagues so many of their parents. It’s easy to see the advantages to the delay. There is time enough for adulthood and its attendant obligations; maybe if kids take longer to choose their mates and their careers, they’ll make fewer mistakes and live happier lives. But it’s just as easy to see the drawbacks. As the settling-down sputters along for the “emerging adults,” things can get precarious for the rest of us … So we’re caught in a weird moment, unsure whether to allow young people to keep exploring and questioning or to cut them off and tell them just to find something, anything, to put food on the table and get on with their lives.”
And a bit further down:
“Why does it matter? Because if the delay in achieving adulthood is just a temporary aberration caused by passing social mores and economic gloom, it’s something to struggle through for now, maybe feeling a little sorry for the young people who had the misfortune to come of age in a recession. But if it’s a true life stage, we need to start rethinking our definition of normal development and to create systems of education, health care and social supports that take the new stage into account.”
And finally, here’s my take:
Who doesn’t want to spend their 20s exploring the world, discovering their niche and generally living the life of a bon vivant? I know I certainly did in my younger days. No doubt that for most young people delaying adulthood is a fantastic experience – so long as you can afford it.
But for people in like my wife and me who have “been there and done that” and are now very much facing the real-life issues of adulthood in our late 30s*, the question now looms – why didn’t we just get on with it sooner?
*And to that I might add that we are among the lucky ones who, if worse comes to worse, can still rely on our families for support.