Emerging Adulthood: Our Second Adolescence or Rationalized Laziness?
The realization that the world expects you to be an adult, or at least act like one, takes a long time to sink in. Plenty of middle-aged people I know are still reverberating from the shock. It’s especially hard for us, as a generation bred on the idea that you can achieve anything if you set your mind to it, now entering the world during an economic recession, to accept this fight for entry-level jobs as adulthood.
According to Arnett, we’re not just lazy, fickle and spoiled; the brains of Twentysomethings are simply not developed enough to choose the right career path and the right romantic partner on the first try. We’re not failures if nothing seems to be the right fit. All of our uncertainty might be completely justified, and we might be doing the right thing by delaying the important decisions and commitments. But not everyone is buying it.
One of the main arguments against the validity of emerging adulthood as a developmental stage is the fact that it may be a specifically American problem. In the Times article, Marantz Henig quoted Richard Lerner, Bergstrom chair in applied developmental science at Tufts University, as saying, “To qualify as a developmental stage, emerging adulthood must be both universal and essential.”
To the skeptics, the complications of finding oneself are the luxury crisis of kids growing up in a society that will reach out to catch them when they fall, through social programs as well as through a general cultural acceptance of the fact that young people will make mistakes and take time to figure out what they’re doing with their lives.
The pressure attached to important life decisions is made greater as life expectancy goes up, and as the opportunities available increase in number and variety. Growing up to take over the family business is counter-intuitive to a world where a college kid can make billions by building a social networking site; it’s hard to choose one path when an infinite number are open.
We’re terrified of wasting time, because if you change careers over and over again, starting from the bottom every time, you never get past mid-level. We all want to go far and be good at something. We watched “Reading Rainbow” as children and think we can take over the world.
If our paralyzing fear is born of our upbringing, reconciling the childhood years spent being spoon-fed optimism with the shock of the limitations of reality, then emerging adulthood doesn’t fit into the textbook definition of a developmental stage. But that doesn’t make the prospect of moving back into your parents’ house after college any less terrifying, or the decision between grad school and a job any easier to make.
The real question isn’t whether we feel this way because of our brain chemistry or because of society, but whether making allowances for our aimless wandering will help or hurt us. Will taking the time now to figure out what we really want to do save us from a mid-life crisis later, or is that simply a lame excuse for the unmotivated?