Why Can't Twenty-Somethings Grow Up?

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As America copes with life amid the recession, articles detailing the stunted growth of young adults have been appearing with relative frequency. The Wall Street Journal penned a lament for the College Class of 2010, Newsweek found that Millennials are "getting clobbered" financially, and the New York Times has made a habit of documenting the stress, heartache and confusion of those who move back home after college. And that's without even getting into whether or not "Helicopter-Parenting" has stymied Millennials' ability to properly transition into fully functioning adults.

In latest such piece, an 8,000-word essay for The New York Times Magazine, writer Robin Marantz Henig investigates the frustrating ambivalence of early twenty-somethings as they grapple with "emerging adulthood." While Henig admits that the problem of "young adults who won't grow up" is something that's more often discussed in financially privileged circles, there is some hard evidence suggesting that such concerns are becoming more widespread. Here are some highlights from her piece.

On the ambivalence of young-adulthood:

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?

On the maturation of the brain:

Some scientists would argue that this ambivalence reflects what is going on in the brain, which is also both grown-up and not-quite-grown-up. Neuroscientists once thought the brain stops growing shortly after puberty, but now they know it keeps maturing well into the 20s.

Why this is problem is surfacing now:

Maybe it's only now, when young people are allowed to forestall adult obligations without fear of public censure, that the rate of societal maturation can finally fall into better sync with the maturation of the brain. ...

Today young people don't expect to marry until their late 20s, don't expect to start a family until their 30s, don't expect to be on track for a rewarding career until much later than their parents were.

Emerging adulthood as a universally accepted life stage:

To qualify as a developmental stage, emerging adulthood must be both universal and essential. "If you don't develop a skill at the right stage, you'll be working the rest of your life to develop it when you should be moving on," he said. "The rest of your development will be unfavorably altered." The fact that Arnett can be so casual about the heterogeneity of emerging adulthood and its existence in some cultures but not in others -- indeed, even in some people but not in their neighbors or friends -- is what undermines, for many scholars, his insistence that it's a new life stage.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.