Yes, 20-Somethings Are Taking Longer to Grow Up—but Why?

It's not just that Millennials are delaying marriage, home ownership, and career. It's that the very definition of "adulthood" is changing.

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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?

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.

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Hope Reese is a writer and editor based in Louisville, Kentucky. She writes for The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, and The Paris Review. She also hosts a radio podcast for IdeaFestival. Her website is hopereese.com.

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