It's not just that Millennials are delaying marriage, home ownership, and career. It's that the very definition of "adulthood" is changing.smilygirl/Flickr
Twenty-somethings: why don't they just grow up already?
In 2010, science journalist Robin Marantz Henig tried to answer this in the widely circulated New York Times Magazine article "What is it About 20-Somethings?" Among other questions, she explored why Millennials were taking so long to get married, buy homes, commit to stable careers, and become parents. Were they simply coddled, the byproduct of helicopter parenting, unable to live independent lives? Or were they experiencing, as psychologist Jeffrey Arnett once put it, "emerging adulthood" -- a special category defined by that "in between" feeling?
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The popularity of Henig's feature prompted her to investigate the issue further -- this time, with her 20-something daughter, Samantha Henig, web editor for the New York Times Magazine. Their newly released book, Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?, explores the question of whether Millennials are experiencing their 20s differently from any previous generation.
As a "20-something" myself, however, I found their assessment shallow. And the conclusions they reached felt neither scientifically valid nor satisfyingly personal.
The chapters cover broad categories that affect my generation -- "Brain and Body," "Baby Carriage," and "Friendship in Real Life," among others. (Like most writers who ponder the plight of 20-somethings, the authors focus on the narrow segment of the population that's college-educated and career-driven.) But while the Henigs set off on an ambitious and engaging path, their declarations quickly lose credibility.
The first problem? They can't empathize with a lot of the challenges that 20-somethings face. Robin Henig married early, bought a home, and got started right away at what turned out to be a very rewarding and enriching career. Her Millennial daughter, Samantha, didn't stray far from this ambitious professional path. Both graduated from the same Ivy League college. (Samantha, unlike many in her generation, has no student loans.) Both are affiliated with the New York Times Magazine. They study listlessness without proving that they can identify with it.
Each chapter ends with a wrap-up in which the authors offer up arbitrary bullet points ("There's no such thing as a perfect mate," or "Some people would rather stay single") that read like Cosmopolitan headlines. And some of these conclusions are outright ridiculous. When I read the bullet point "Brothers and sisters are the closest thing in the world," I seriously wondered whether the authors were joking.
The wrap-ups also aim to answer the question "Which camp wins?" -- ruling in each subject area that the Millennial experience is either "new" or the "same as it ever was." But the authors rarely try to explain why the two generations are different. Whenever the book veers toward those larger questions, it quickly returns to bullet points. In one brief passage, Samantha reflects on drinking patterns among her friends with striking insight:
Among all the reasons young people give for being unwilling to label ourselves "adults," I wonder if one big one is what that label would mean about our drinking. If we were adults, we would be considered alcoholics. But we're not alcoholics; we're just twenty-four or twenty-six or thirty-one or thirty-five, and this is what our lives are, this is what socializing is.
This offers a glimpse of how illuminating the book could be if it were this thoughtful throughout. But instead of exploring the reasons behind 20-somethings' drinking habits or placing them in a larger context, the authors quickly turn to a sanitized voice. Robin offers no personal reaction to her daughter's honest admission; she merely gives us a quiz for determining alcoholism. Samantha scores relatively high on the quiz, but there is no further discussion of the topic.
Ultimately, Twentysomething is not, as the book jacket claims, "the definitive book about being young in our time." It doesn't even begin to address the real issue at hand -- which is that the concept of "adulthood" is slippery, and the old benchmarks don't necessarily apply anymore. The idea of home ownership feels absurdly out of reach to many of us. How could we think about investing in a house when we're facing decades of paying off student loans? But while the authors acknowledge that debt is one largest hurdles confronting Millennials, they don't explore how debt affects our life choices, relationships, marriage, and careers. In all of those areas, they deem the Millennials' experience "same as it ever was."
Many of my late 20-something friends don't want children at all, and marriage is no longer an automatic part of the plan.
The most powerful underexplored difference is how technology has shaped my generation. In the "Friendship in Real Life" chapter, the two Henigs debate whether Facebook has made relationships shallower or farther-reaching. But after discussing how the Web affects us, they conclude that it is "not all that different from how technologies of the past changed the cognitive styles of previous generations."
As a full-fledged member of the Facebook and Twitter generation, I find this conclusion off-base. We spent our pivotal adolescent years in front of a chat screen, communicating in a way no generation ever has. Twentysomething considers Facebook as a social outlet without acknowledging how profoundly our reliance on technology has shaped our approach to the world.
Likewise, Twentysomething touches lightly on reproductive technology and the delay of marriage, but it fails to give us any insight into the forces behind these developments. The authors don't connect the dots and talk about the shifting family structure, nor do they discuss the rise in women becoming breadwinners. They conclude that "there hasn't been any seismic shift in the expectations surrounding marriage." Here, too, I disagree: A large number of my late 20-something friends feel confident that they don't want children at all, and marriage is no longer an automatic part of the plan. These shifts in attitude are not only significant and real; they're likely to transform the American culture and economy in irreversible ways.
I can't pretend that there are easy answers to why Millennials are "stuck." But the authors of Twentysomething don't even ask the right questions. They seem concerned with one simplistic consideration: whether Millennials are entering into "adulthood" in a fundamentally new way. To this question, at least, I can confidently answer yes.