The Times Asks: When Are You Going to Grow Up?

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An image of us after seven career changes. Photo: iStockphoto

"A bit unfinished." "Aimless." "Unable to take on the trappings of adulthood" or to "settle the questions whose answers once defined adulthood: questions of relationship to the existing society, questions of vocation, questions of social role and lifestyle." These are some of the ways contemporary twentysomethings are characterized in Robin Marantz Henig's story in The New York Times Magazine this weekend, which features the work of a social scientist who believes the number of people who refuse to "settle down" before the age of 30 warrants the recognition of a new stage of life, which he has called "Emerging Adulthood." Others disagree, noting that what has come to be known as extended adolescence is mostly a Western phenomenon. But, says Henig:


The more profound question behind the scholarly intrigue is the one that really captivates parents: whether the prolongation of this unsettled time of life is a good thing or a bad thing. 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?

But the more profound question, at least, the one that kept occurring to us while reading this, is Does anyone ever "grow up" anymore?

Witness the baby boomers, which the story bizarrely holds up to highlight this generation's shortcomings: Their median age at first marriage, in the seventies, was 21 to 23; today it's 26 to 28. But can they really be said to have ever "settled down"? Didn't a fairly gigantic number of them freak out and rid themselves of the "trappings of adulthood" they'd acquired early in life, the spouses and careers and homes, in favor of a second adolescence, complete with toys and dating and jumping from passion project to passion project, in some cases numerous times? Are a lot of them not still doing so, or still have the potential to do so, again and again and again, possibly ad infinitum? (For some reason we are thinking of Julio Iglesias Senior, who died at age 90, days after his second or maybe third wife announced her pregnancy. Who knows if he would have stopped at that, had he not been summoned to the great salsa party in the sky?) Furthermore: Is there anyone that can answer those questions, the ones that "define adulthood," with absolute certainty? We have to think if you think you can, you are in denial, or lack imagination, or are maybe Barack Obama. One thing is certain: Life is longer now, and the rules have changed. The situation is fluid. Maybe we're all emerging adults, and we're just going to stay that way, forever.

What Is It About 20-Somethings? [NYT]