Growing-ups

Living with your parents, single and with no clear career. Is this a failure to grow up or a whole new stage of life’?

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Confident, idealistic, hard working............what's not to like? Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

Confident, idealistic, hard working............what's not to like? Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett is professor of psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. His latest book Getting to 30: A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years, will be published in May 2014.

I will readily admit, it took me a long time to grow up. I graduated from Michigan State University in 1980 at the age of 23 with a freshly printed bachelor’s degree in psychology and no idea what I really wanted to do. I’d learned to play guitar in college and, intent on avoiding the drudgery of a crummy low-paying job, I now worked up a repertoire of songs large enough to enable me to make money by playing in bars and restaurants. I made enough to live on, but only because I had moved back home with my parents and didn’t have to pay for rent or groceries.

After a couple of years, I entered graduate school in psychology, but even after I got my PhD four years later, I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do. In the romantic department, I was no further along either. I’d had lots of girlfriends by then, but never come close to marriage. Eventually, I did find my way in love and work, but it took many years more: I got my first long-term job (as a professor) at 35, married at 36, and had my kids (twins) at 42.

When my research on how young people make their way to adulthood first began, the initial inspiration was my own odyssey. I was in my early 30s and thinking about how long it was taking me – and lots of my peers – to get there. But I have maintained my research focus on these 18- to 29-year-olds because I found they were so rewarding to talk to.

I had studied adolescents for years before that, mostly high-school students, focusing on their media use and risky behaviours such as driving while intoxicated. I enjoyed this research, but found that adolescents often clammed up when I tried to interview them. They were wary of me – a potentially intrusive adult – but it seemed that they also lacked self-reflection and self-understanding. Their egocentrism prevented them from being able to take a step back and reflect thoughtfully on what they did and why they did it.

But ‘emerging adults’, in the 18-29 age group, did have that ability, and not only those who were college-educated like me. My most memorable interviews were with emerging adults whose experiences were totally different from mine – those who had been in prison, or abused as children, or raised by a drug-addicted single mom. Across the board, I found them to be insightful about what they had experienced and who they were becoming now. It was this insightfulness, expressed with humour and everyday eloquence, that led me to devote my career to understanding them and explaining them to others.

Since then, I’ve written two books about this distinct life stage, in part to help emerging adults and their parents understand the longer road to adulthood in America today. I’ve also directed two national surveys, the Clark Poll on Emerging Adults in 2012 and 2013, which have given us a picture of this age group nationwide.

I was to discover, however, that there were many others who didn’t share my warm and benevolent views of emerging adults. Quite the contrary.

In 2004, after a decade of interviewing 18- to 29-year-olds in various parts of the US, I published a book announcing the theory of emerging adulthood as a new life stage between adolescence and adulthood, and summarising what I’d found in my research, on topics ranging from relations with parents to love and sex, education, work and religious beliefs. Prior to publication, TIME magazine told my publisher, Oxford University Press, that they were planning to run a cover story inspired by the book. Naturally, I was excited. However, when the TIME piece came out, it was shockingly bad. The cover photo showed a young man clad in a dress shirt and pants, sitting in a sandbox. Readers were invited to meet today’s young people, ‘who live off their parents, bounce from job to job and hop from mate to mate… THEY JUST WON’T GROW UP’. The text was mostly a lament on their deficiencies and an invitation to ridicule them for taking longer to enter marriage, parenthood and full-time work than their parents or grandparents did.

Ten years later, I am no longer surprised by this view of emerging adults, but I remain puzzled and dismayed. I have spent a regrettable amount of my time in the past decade playing Whac-A-Mole with the derogatory descriptions that my fellow Americans reflexively apply to emerging adults: they’re lazy, selfish and they never want to grow up. Oh, and they’re worse than ever, certainly worse than the adults now criticising them were in their own youth. Is there is any truth to these stereotypes or are they just unfair?

One of the most common insults to today’s emerging adults is that they’re lazy. According to this view, young people are ‘slackers’ who avoid work whenever possible, preferring to sponge off their parents for as long as they can get away with it. One of the reasons they avoid real work is that have an inflated sense of entitlement. They expect work to be fun, and if it’s not fun, they refuse to do it.

It’s true that emerging adults have high hopes for work, and even, yes, a sense of being entitled to enjoy their work. Ian, a 22-year-old who was interviewed for my 2004 book, chose to go into journalism, even though he knew that: ‘If I’m a journalist making $20,000 a year, my dad [a wealthy physician] makes vastly more than that.’ More important than the money was finding a job that he could love. ‘If I enjoy thoroughly doing what I’m doing in life, then I would be better off than my dad.’ Emerging adults enter the workplace seeking what I call identity-based work, meaning a job that will be a source of self-fulfillment and make the most of their talents and interests. They want a job that they will look forward to doing when they get up each morning.

Have you noticed who is waiting on your table at the restaurant, working the counter at the retail store, stocking the shelves at the supermarket?

You might think that this is not a realistic expectation for work, and you are right. But keep in mind it was their parents’ generation, the Baby Boomers, who invented the idea that work should be fun. No one had ever thought so before. Baby Boomers rejected the traditional assumption that work was a dreary but unavoidable part of the human condition. They declared that they didn’t want to spend their lives simply slaving away – and their children grew up in this new world, assuming that work should be meaningful and self-fulfilling. Now that those children are emerging adults, their Baby Boomer parents and employers grumble at their presumptuousness.

So, yes, emerging adults today have high and often unrealistic expectations for work, but lazy? That’s laughably false. While they look for their elusive dream job, they don’t simply sit around and play video games and update their Facebook page all day. The great majority of them spend most of their twenties in a series of unglamorous, low-paying jobs as they search for something better. The average American holds ten different jobs between the ages of 18 and 29, and most of them are the kinds of jobs that promise little respect and less money. Have you noticed who is waiting on your table at the restaurant, working the counter at the retail store, stocking the shelves at the supermarket? Most of them are emerging adults. Many of them are working and attending school at the same time, trying to make ends meet while they strive to move up the ladder. It’s unfair to tar the many hard-working emerging adults with a stereotype that is true for only a small percentage of them.

Is striving for identity-based work only for the middle class and the wealthy, who have the advantages in American society? Yes and no. The aspiration stretches across social classes: in the national Clark poll, 79 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds agreed that: ‘It is more important for me to enjoy my job than to make a lot of money,’ and there were no differences across social class backgrounds (represented by mother’s education). However, the reality is quite different from the aspiration. Young Americans from lower social class backgrounds are far less likely than those from higher social backgrounds to obtain a college education and, without a college degree, jobs of any kind are scarce in the modern information-based economy. The current US unemployment rate is twice as high for those with only a high-school degree or less than it is for those with a four-year college degree. In the national Clark poll, emerging adults from lower social class backgrounds were far more likely than their more advantaged peers to agree that ‘I have not been able to find enough financial support to get the education I need.’ That’s not their fault. It is the fault of their society which short-sightedly fails to fund education and training adequately, and thereby squanders the potential and aspirations of the young.

Another widespread slur against emerging adults is that they are selfish. Some American researchers – most notoriously Jean Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University and a well-known writer and speaker – claim that young people today have grown more ‘narcissistic’ compared with their equivalents 30 or 40 years ago. This claim is based mainly on surveys of college students that show increased levels of self-esteem. Today’s students are more likely than in the past to agree with statements such as: ‘I am an important person.’

With this stereotype, too, there is a grain of truth that has been vastly overblown. It’s probably true that most emerging adults today grow up with a higher level of self-esteem than in previous generations. Their Baby Boomer parents have been telling them from the cradle onward: ‘You’re special!’ ‘You can be whatever you want to be!’ ‘Dream big dreams!’ and the like. Popular culture has reinforced these messages, in movies, television shows and songs. Well, they actually believed it. In the national Clark poll, nearly all 18- to 29-year-olds (89 per cent) agreed with the statement: ‘I am confident that eventually I will get what I want out of life.’

But – and this is the key point – that doesn’t mean they’re selfish. It certainly doesn’t mean they are a generation of narcissists. It simply means that they are highly confident in their abilities to make a good life for themselves, whatever obstacles they might face. Would we prefer that they cringed before the challenges of adulthood? I have come to see their high self-esteem and confidence as good psychological armour for entering a tough adult world. Most people get knocked down more than once in the course of their 20s, by love, by work, by any number of dream bubbles that are popped by rude reality. High self-esteem is what allows them to get up again and continue moving forward. For example, Nicole, 25, grew up in poverty as the oldest of four children in a household with a mentally disabled mother and no father. Her goals for her life have been repeatedly delayed or driven off track by her family responsibilities. Nevertheless, she is pursuing a college degree and is determined to reach her ultimate goal of getting a PhD. Her self-belief is what has enabled her to overcome a chaotic childhood full of disadvantages. ‘It’s like, the more you come at me, the stronger I’m going to be,’ she told me when I interviewed her for my 2004 book.

The ‘selfish’ slur also ignores how idealistic and generous-hearted today’s emerging adults are. In the national Clark poll, 86 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds agreed that: ‘It is important to me to have a career that does some good in the world.’ And it is not just an idealistic aspiration: they are, in fact, more likely to volunteer their time and energy for serving others than their parents did at the same age, according to national surveys by the US Higher Education Research Institute.

As for the claim that they never want to grow up, it’s true that entering the full range of adult responsibilities comes later than it did before, in terms of completing education and entering marriage and parenthood. Many emerging adults are ambivalent about adulthood and in no hurry to get there. In the national Clark poll, 35 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds agreed with the statement: ‘If I could have my way, I would never become an adult.’ That’s not a majority, but it’s a lot, and that 35 per cent is probably the basis of the stereotype.

They want to make use of their freedom while they have the chance. That’s not contemptible, it’s wise

Adulthood is full of onerous responsibilities, as all of us who have been there for a while know well: going to work every day, making the meals, keeping the household reasonably clean and orderly, paying the bills. It doesn’t look like a whole lot of fun to most young people. Gerard, a guitarist and singer in a rock band, told me that, at 27: ‘I feel like I’m kind of teetering on the brink of adulthood, you know. I guess in some ways I feel like it and other ways I don’t. I associate being an adult with being really boring, and I just don’t feel quite that boring yet.’

Despite their ambivalence, by the age of 30 the great majority of emerging adults have a marriage partner, at least one child, and a stable long-term job. Most of the rest will reach these milestones some time in their early 30s. So, it’s not true that they never grow up. Most of them just don’t want to take on the yoke of adult responsibilities in their early 20s. They would rather use the flexibility of their 20s for the kinds of exploration they couldn’t have pursued when they were younger, and won’t be able to do later – go to a different part of the country or the world to live for a while, try to break in to a glamorous but long-shot profession such as music or acting, or simply work in a low-pay, low-stress job for a while and have a lot of fun with friends. They want to make use of their freedom while they have the chance. That’s not contemptible, it’s wise, and we don’t give them enough credit for their wisdom. By age 30, nearly all of them are more than ready to trade their footloose freedom for the rewards of enduring bonds to others.

Despite all of this good news about the rising generation, an especially popular negative stereotype of emerging adults today is that they are worse than ever, far inferior to young people of a generation or two ago. Many ageing Baby Boomers contrast today’s emerging adults unfavourably with the 1960s and ’70s, when they were young. There is a widespread belief in US society that young people are apathetic, irresponsible and immoral. In a 2009 national survey by the Pew Research Center, 70 per cent agreed that ‘older people’ have ‘better values’ than ‘younger people’. Even a majority of the 18- to 29-year-olds agreed.

Oddly, this stereotype persists even though there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. On a variety of indicators, young people have gotten better, not worse over the past decades. Rates of violent crime committed by young men are now less than half the level of the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s. Automobile fatalities have long been the main cause of death among young Americans in the late teens and early 20s, but rates have declined by almost half in the past 20 years. The birth rate for 18- to 19-year-old women has declined by about 25 per cent since the early 1990s, and among African Americans it has dropped by nearly half.

Not only have bad things gone down, but good things about this generation have gone up. Nearly 90 per cent of American college freshmen reported doing volunteer work in the past year, the highest level ever, according to the annual national survey of tens of thousands of first-year college students conducted by the US Higher Education Research Institute. Furthermore, applications to post-college volunteer programmes such as the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and Teach for America have reached record levels.

Young Americans are also more tolerant and accepting of diversity than older generations, including race and sexual orientation. According to a national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, young Americans (ages 18-29) are more likely than any older age group to say they ‘would be fine with a family member’s marriage to someone of any other race/ethnicity’. Among whites, 88 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds agreed, compared with 52 per cent of 50- to 64-year-olds and just 36 per cent of those aged 65 and older. The same study also found that interracial friendships were most common among the young.

Young Americans are much more accepting of variations in sexual orientation than their elders. According to various Pew surveys, the proportion of Americans who agree that ‘same-sex sexual relations are always wrong’ is 78 per cent for those born before 1928 but only 43 per cent for those born since 1981. This and other surveys also find that young Americans are far more likely than older Americans to believe that same-sex marriage should be legal.

The open and accepting attitudes of young Americans extend beyond the borders of the US. The survey researcher John Zogby calls today’s 18- to 29-year-olds the ‘first globals’ because his data indicate that they see themselves as citizens of the world and are more devoted than older generations to addressing global problems. Zogby concludes that the current generation of young people is more globally engaged than members of any previous generation in US history. For example, 56 per cent of those aged 18-29 have friends or family living outside the US, higher than any older group; and a third of them have travelled outside the US in the past five years. We might reasonably hope that this portends more harmonious international relations in their lifetimes than their parents and grandparents have experienced.

People who are scornful of today’s emerging adults might see themselves as trying to wake them up and make them more responsible, but how helpful is this approach, really? Is ridicule likely to make young people more inclined to accept a dead-end job? Will hostility motivate them to become productive members of society?

Not likely. An opened door promises a lot better results than a smack upside the head. It’s in the interest of all of us to help young people make a successful transition to adulthood, because when they do, everybody benefits. Emerging adults want to contribute to their societies, not be passive dependents. Nearly all of them are striving hard to make their way in the world, and they aspire to find a form of work that does some good in the world. But their societies are not doing a very good job in reforming educational and employment systems for the modern world, in order to make it possible for young people to make the most of their talents, abilities and energies. The lack of access to high-quality educational opportunities is a scandal in a country such as the United States, which is the wealthiest the world has ever seen. It represents a colossal waste of human potential.

By the end of the 21st century, we will see tertiary education as essential. The sooner we get started, the less of our emerging adults’ potential we will squander

One concrete goal should be to make tertiary education a universal entitlement in the 21st century, just as secondary education became an entitlement in the 20th century, and primary education in the 19th century. I say ‘tertiary education’ instead of ‘college’, because it might take a wide range of forms, from university to occupational training programmes. One way or another, in the 21st-century economy young people need something beyond secondary school to prepare them for the workplace. The economy in developed countries continues to undergo a massive shift from manufacturing to a service economy (including business services, finance, health care and education). The service economy requires a base of knowledge, and skills in using information and technology. Secondary education alone is not enough to provide this. Tertiary education is required. Without it, many young people enter a labour market where they have little chance of succeeding, with predictably dismal results: unemployment, dependency on government, hopelessness, and substance abuse. We can, and must, do better.

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Won’t that cost a lot of money? You bet – just like it took a huge investment in the 19th century to start a primary education system, and in the 20th century to make secondary education universal. None of us regret that investment now; in fact, we could hardly imagine our societies without it. By the end of the 21st century, we will see tertiary education in precisely the same way. The sooner we get started, the less of our emerging adults’ potential we will squander.

It will take some time to make the transition to universal tertiary education, but meanwhile, there’s something else that parents, employers and other adults can and should provide to emerging adults: patience and support. Becoming an adult is a struggle. In the national Clark poll, 72 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds agreed that: ‘This time of my life is stressful.’ The last thing they need as they navigate their way forward is antipathy from older people. Parents should not hesitate to support their kids during emerging adulthood, emotionally and financially, if they are able, as long as the kids are pursuing a capital-P Plan with diligence. Recognising that there is a new life stage of emerging adulthood that extends through most of the 20s, in which instability and uncertainty are normative, can help adults relax a little when young people seem to be moving forward on that Plan at a slower pace than they expected.

The origins of the many prejudices against today’s emerging adults are complex, but maybe one key reason is that many of their elders still use old yardsticks to measure their progress. The pace of social, economic and technological change over the past half-century has been mind-boggling, and what is ‘normal’ among young people has changed so fast that the rest of society has not yet caught up. Many observers are still finding them wanting if they are not married and settled into a stable job by age 23 or 25, even though that would be unusually early by today’s standards. Understanding that a new life stage of emerging adulthood is now typical between adolescence and young adulthood, and that it is a time when change and instability is the norm, will help make it possible to ease up on the negative stereotypes and learn to appreciate their energy, their creativity, and their zest for life.

This essay is based on material taken from the author’s two books, Emerging Adulthood and (with Elizabeth Fishel) When Will My Grown Up Kid Grow Up.

Read more essays on education and life stages

Comments

  • Viktor

    Happy to read kind words for my generation.

    I think the most significant difference between us and our parent generation is how different the world is. The story of the world was very different for my parents than it is for me now. When they were young things were quite clear: study and you will get a job and thus money and security. On top of that we didn't see much of any greater global problems back then (speaking of the western world bubble, in my case Austria), no climate change and things like that, etc., and concerning the problems that existed at the time, it seemed it was a matter of time until science figures something out and solves the problem.

    (Granted, I think our parents lives were not necessarily easier than ours, though the hardships probably manifested in different ways)

    I would like to believe that story because it would simplify a lot, but I feel it is breaking apart. Hardly any of the various crises and peak-x's seem to be reverting, even though we have been knowing about them for some time now, all the while we continue to feed an economic system that is unable to persist without continually converting every corner of life into money. Forests become building material and pastures, formerly community building relationships become estranged services, every square meter of land becomes property, health and time become long work hours, etc. etc.

    I may be overly pessimistic in my view of things, but I find it hard to live the story of "everything is alright with our ways, study something, get a job, earn money". I would like to do something that helps our situation and fits my talents, but as of now I don't have much of an inkling as to what that would be. I am ready to forego the fun (that work should be fun is an admirable idea, but also sort of silly, if you think about it. On the other hand, asking that ones work shouldn't add to the harm we are doing and ideally add to the good in the world should really not be too much to ask for).

    I may be shirking the situation, but hey, give me some time.

    • gvanderleun

      Oh sack up and get over yourself my precious little snowflake. You just love this bit of blather because it gives you yet another excuse. Clue one: decolonize you mind.

      • http://davidlawrence.cc David Lawrence

        What a rude and pointless comment.

      • Viktor

        I am sorry to hear you didn't like my thoughts on why it is taking my generation longer than the one before to accrue the symbols of adulthood.
        Thanks for the decolonization clue, found some good material.

    • m1shu

      "no climate change and things like that"

      Oh honey, the climate has been changing since the earth existed. Bu

  • old guy

    just make sure you pay your parents back for the 2 degrees and the rent and food.

    • Viktor

      they don't have expenses with me, so it's alright.

    • Angry Xer

      So tired of the assumption that parents are paying - or even CAN pay - Millennials' tuition and college expenses. Many pay nothing at all. Hence so many graduates under 40 with massive student debt. I owe $50K and got my master's ten years ago. Haven't been able to earn more than about $35K.

      • disqus_MHw7a2dXsU

        Did your master's degree not teach you basic arithmetic? Why did you go in debt $50K for an "education" that failed to equip you with skills to earn more than $35K per year? I put myself through both undergraduate, which I completed in my late 20's in the early 2000's, and graduate school, which I completed in my mid 30's five years ago. I got both degrees while living on my own. My total college debt was $8500. I earn more than four times as much as you.

        You have made very poor choices. Without a college degree, when I was 25, I earned more than twice what you're making.

        You're not exactly making a strong point that millenials' failures are their own.

        • fiafa

          It's quite obvious that it's not possible to predict your earnings based on degree alone. I know many people with highly technical STEM degrees who should and could be easily earning six figures but who are unemployed because the economy has been stagnant for almost a decade, or longer if you ignore the housing bubble.

          • disqus_MHw7a2dXsU

            Degrees pretty much never matter. What matters are skills that show employers you can add value. There isn't anyone you know with STEM degrees with real skills who is unemployed. Having worked in electronics and software for two decades now I can tell you that EVERY place I've worked was understaffed. And not because of budget shortages, i.e., a weak economy, but because of a real lack of skilled labor. In other words , the people you know don't have real skills or let employers know one way or another they aren't too interested in adding value to the employer.

            The number of people who think a job is about them and not about what the employer wants, you know THE PEOPLE WHO PAY YOU, is quite astonishing. Imagine you go into McDonald's and order a burger without pickles and you receive a grilled chicken sandwich loaded with pickles because the guy behind the counter felt more job satisfaction cooking chicken and slicing pickles. You'd laugh in their face if they demanded you still pay for that sandwich. The last time I got laid off, a bunch of people remained laid off from that same round of layoffs because they got offers they thought were beneath them or not exactly what they wanted or because they didn't want to move. Others had a job within two or three days because they remained flexible.

          • fiafa

            It's fascinating that a guy who doesn't know the individuals I'm talking about is able to tell me about their deficiencies just from reading about them over the internet.
            Your snottiness aside, I don't disagree with the point that most STEM jobs are understaffed. It's not an easy problem to solve, and it's exacerbated by terrible hiring practices across the US. The idea that there's a shortage of qualified people though is wrong. But asking someone, "So tell me about yourself," and "What is your greatest accomplishment" in a 30 minute interview won't get you the best candidates. There are a few firms that actually spend time and money on making sure their hiring process is good, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule. Unfortunately quantitative hiring practices tend to be flagged as discriminatory by sue happy lawyers, but that is the only way to really effectively screen candidates for high-skill, high-IQ jobs.

          • disqus_MHw7a2dXsU

            It's fascinating that a guy who doesn't know the individuals I'm talking about is able to tell me about their deficiencies just from reading about them over the internet.

            Because, there's nothing special about them. People are people everywhere. No one is special. We all have our problems and unique situations. When something goes wrong in our lives, obviously other people are responsible. This is the lie we tell ourselves to protect our own ego. The reality, though, is pretty much 100% of the time it's poor decision making independent of other people.

            The idea that there's a shortage of qualified people though is wrong.

            How do you square this with your believe that "most STEM jobs are understaffed"? The very reason the demand for STEM jobs are understaffed is because of a "shortage of qualified people". This is like saying that people in the desert aren't thirsty because of a shortage of water. It's in fact the very reason for it.

            But asking someone, "So tell me about yourself," and "What is your greatest accomplishment" in a 30 minute interview won't get you the best candidates.

            As with all human endeavors, there are flaws in the hiring process. If you can come up with a better way to staff qualified people, you will make a mint. Businesses care very much about hiring quality candidates. And they want to hire people, as production drives profits. They do the best they can. Sometimes mistakes are made, but not systematically.

            It's easy to shif the burden of your unemployment on to business. The "Man if they only knew how awesome I was" or "They're just too stupid to see my genius" is exactly the type of self-entitlement that I was talking about. And laughably, you said I was snotty. You're cute.

            There are a few firms that actually spend time and money on making sure their hiring process is good, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule.

            So? If you don't like the way businesses hire people, start a business and implement your great hiring process. If you're so good at it, you'll have no problem out competing your competitors.

            The reality is that if you (or your frieds) want a job, you have to go get one. If you're expecting companies to simply line up and start offering you money, then you are the problem.

            Unfortunately quantitative hiring practices tend to be flagged as discriminatory by sue happy lawyers

            Sadly, this is true. Government regulation is almost always a bad thing.

          • fiafa

            "How do you square this with your believe that "most STEM jobs are
            understaffed"? The very reason the demand for STEM jobs are
            understaffed is because of a "shortage of qualified people". This is
            like saying that people in the desert aren't thirsty because of a
            shortage of water. It's in fact the very reason for it."

            It's very easy to square away the belief that jobs might be understaffed while also believing that there are plenty of qualified people looking to work in these fields. It's called observing reality. Markets are not anywhere close to 100% efficient, as you suggest. Bad hiring practices, government regulation that makes hiring the wrong person onerous, historical realities (e.g. Silicon Valley's tech dominance), etc. The job market is particularly inefficient because the actors making the hiring decisions often do so for irrational reasons, and it's impossible to truly know the value of a person's contribution until they are already hired.

            I think it's funny that you essentially respond to me as if I'm unemployed. It's cute, in an autistic cretinous way. The only reason why I mention my friends is because I know it's ridiculous for intelligent people to work trivial jobs while searching for employment that is meaningful.

            It's a burden on our society as a whole to not try to maximize the contribution of every member of society, and to not do so is to diminish society's efficiency and value. Individuals with IQs in the +1 and +2 SD range should not work as painters, call center technicians, floor salesmen, and other such jobs. I know a man with an IQ of 130 who lives on disability payments due to a mild anxiety disorder -- But it's easier for him to collect a government paycheck than it is to find an employer who is willing to accommodate his social issues. It is a tragic waste of human potential.

            "So? If you don't like the way businesses hire people, start a business
            and implement your great hiring process. If you're so good at it,
            you'll have no problem out competing your competitors."

            Top tier technology companies generally already do this. But the reality is that most smaller firms and startups are not going to have the resources or the data to throw at hiring. Good hiring practices also take the human bias out of the decision making process, and most humans, like yourself, are reluctant to do this because of their egos. You also assume that it's possible to just create a company and through superior hiring practices alone just instantly outcompete other companies. Here in the real world, it's obvious that many established companies have substantial advantages over new competitors (e.g. capital, for example) and can easily dominate their competitors despite terrible staffing policies. In any case, it's apparent that you are incredibly naive about the real world with your simplistic binary thinking.

          • disqus_MHw7a2dXsU

            It's called observing reality.

            It's called ignoring reality because you'd have to admit some uncomfortable truths. You prefer your pretty lies that sooth your and your friends' egos.

            Markets are not anywhere close to 100% efficient, as you suggest.

            False. Markets are not anywhere near as inefficient, as you suggest.

            The job market is particularly inefficient because the actors making the hiring decisions often do so for irrational reasons

            The actors applying for jobs often do so for irrational reasons and very unrealistic expectations. Blaming companies for knowing the actual work, working conditions, and the trade offs involved in their own business because of your ignorance is nothing but childish.

            it's impossible to truly know the value of a person's contribution until they are already hired.

            Pure fantasy. This is like saying when you pay for a hamburder, you have no idea the value of that burger to you till after you eat it.

            I think it's funny that you essentially respond to me as if I'm unemployed.

            It's cute that you think this. I am responding to you as if you are self-entitled jerk who blames everyone else for your own and your friends' failings. Acting like a child doens't make everyone else an autistic cretin.

            I know it's ridiculous for intelligent people to work trivial jobs while searching for employment that is meaningful.

            You know a lot that isn't true.

            It's a burden on our society as a whole

            Seriously? You know what's best for everyone in society? Your ego is truly out of control.

            Individuals with IQs in the +1 and +2 SD range should not work as painters, call center technicians, floor salesmen, and other such jobs.

            Your ego extends to deciding how other people should live. Get a grip. And your condescension to honest jobs is noted. As I said: self-entitled jerk. What people should do is up to them, not you. What's a tragic loss to society is people like you interfering in other people's lives because you've determined that they are living in their lives wrong. Mind your business.

            Good hiring practices also take the human bias out of the decision making process, and most humans, like yourself, are reluctant to do this because of their egos.

            I'm not the one going around making grand claims about society and deciding how other people should live. You're so oblivious to your own biases that anyone who points them out is deemed biased by you.

            You also assume that it's possible to just create a company and through superior hiring practices alone just instantly outcompete other companies.

            This is true.

            Here in the real world, it's obvious that many established companies have substantial advantages over new competitors (e.g. capital, for example) and can easily dominate their competitors despite terrible staffing policies.

            This isn't obvious at all. But I guess if you have no leg to stand on, it's simply best to assume your conclusion, rather than try to prove it.

            In any case, it's apparent that you are incredibly naive about the real world with your simplistic binary thinking.

            Said the person who displays nothing but biased, self-entitlement, and bad thinking.

        • Publius

          "You have made very poor choices. Without a college degree, when I was 25, I earned more than twice what you're making."

          Dipshit, here's something to wrap your head around. Everyone and their mother would love to have a high paying job with no degree and no skill set. Hell, everyone I know would love to have one after an undergraduate degree! But here's the thing -- THEY DON'T EXIST. It's not like someone's offering these people great jobs and they're turning them down to work at McDonald's!

          • AI_B0t

            Have they applied at McDonalds? It is not a bad place to work. A person with aptitude can work towards management. Many good people work there.

            Anyone that believes themselves too good or too important to scrub toilets, take out trash, wait tables or prepare food is entitled to be unemployed. I and any of the wonderful people not too good to do such work just shouldn't have to pay for your unemployment. Poverty, destitution and homelessness is your entitlement if you refuse to improve your condition.

            What makes you and the emerging adults mentioned in this article so special? You're not. You are less than one in a billion, unnoticeable, unimportant, irrelevant. People that place too much importance on themselves suffer delusions and entitlement attitudes. If you are a special snowflake then billions of other people are as well so you are not so unique in your uniqueness.

            When you are sitting in your parents house using a cell phone they pay for, eating their food, using their electricity, enjoying the medical benefits they pay for ask yourself what your contribution is to your parents. Is it an entitled attitude? Is it a load of excuses that you can't find a job? Do you expect to have all those things 'Well, they brought me into this world and no one asked me'?

            Parents responsibility towards raising, clothing, sheltering and providing for the well being of children ends when the child turns 18 and is an adult. The fact that emerging adults expect otherwise does not make it true.

  • gogododo

    So is anyone else seeing the correlation between decreasing wages and the increase of value placed on fuzzy tangible such as having work with meaning, and quality of life. Maybe if wages were better the young would sell out as well. But as long as people are working longer hours for less pay it only makes since that you focus on jobs you really like. I get it that its pretty unrealistic for people to extend this process into there thirties. I also suspect that if our education system actually prepared children for a post industrial age, which would entail providing them with the space they need at adolescence to focus on what they are good at, and providing them with the resources, and fine tuning they need, rather than an industrial model that downplays their particular strengths and weaknesses in favor of standardization the process could go much smoother.

  • Kevin MacKay

    "They want to make use of their freedom while they have the chance. That’s not contemptible, it’s wise."

    Glad the folks in my generation are so wise.
    Maybe I'll let one work for me.

  • sakusakusakura_nyo

    I'm 31 and I'll never be able to afford my own house. Going to college didn't help me with anything at all and it's too late to do anything about it now.

    • cheeflo

      I thought that when I was younger, too. But when I was 48, I bought a house I could afford and still feel a sense of pride knowing that I achieved it myself. I never went to college, and have held many jobs in my working life. If you decide now that it's too late to aspire to the things you want, then you probably won't achieve them.

      • sakusakusakura_nyo

        Thank you for the words of encouragement. I went out and found myself a new job and now I'm starting to feel a little more optimistic about my situation. :)

      • sakusakusakura_nyo

        Update: I'm doing fantastic now! Glad I hung in there while times were tough.

        • cheeflo

          You can do it!

  • Gudea

    Great essay. I'm 31 years old, single, live with my parents, have no job. I spend a lot of time on facebook, youtube, twitter, playing chess online. My only excuse could be the neurosis diagnose I have and the fact that I'm on pills for several years. I said "could be" because it wasn't enough excuse for the family I live in and it still isn't. I got severely beaten by my older brother 3 times for not having a job, for sleeping in late and for pretending to have a desease. My parents are blaming me for getting beaten. I just want to say that this generation of "adults" never had and will never have the amount of patience and support needed by emerging adults.

    • SaintMarx

      Was this intended as a stellar example of the virtues of emerging adulthood?

  • dsch

    As for the claim that they never want to grow up, it’s true that entering the full range of adult responsibilities comes later than it did before, in terms of completing education and entering marriage and parenthood. Many emerging adults are ambivalent about adulthood and in no hurry to get there. In the national Clark poll, 35 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds agreed with the statement: ‘If I could have my way, I would never become an adult.’ That’s not a majority, but it’s a lot, and that 35 per cent is probably the basis of the stereotype.

    Perfectly understandable since 'becoming an adult' evidently means, for many, being stuck in a respectably soul-destroying job, voting Republican, and replicating crude stereotypes.

  • Brad

    The thing that will catapult "emerging adults" into adulthood is poverty. The author"s parents should have never allowed him to move back in after college. He sounds like he is still an emerging adult.

  • concept47

    I think that economic variables also play an very strong role in what we're seeing with delayed adulthood in millenials.

    Credit is much harder to come by, jobs are more difficult to get without a college education (addressed in the article), and there are also changing attitudes to sex and relationships that are becoming more pronounced with millenials (specifically casual sex/relationships) that make it easier for men (probably women as well) to put off marriage and having children.

    WRT to credit, when I got out of college back in 2003, I got a credit card with a $5000 limit in my mailbox which I started using immediately, I was talking to my brother who graduated last year and he says that those credit card offers are few and far between now, and that even when you get your hands on one, the credit limit is about $1000 ..... this blew me away. I couldn't have started my business without that $5000 credit limit and much of what I have now revolves around my initial self-employment 10 years ago.

    The economic realities have such profound implications that its giving rise to the "sharing economy" http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/09/the-cheapest-generation/309060/ and changing the way corporations are marketing some of their products to this demographic http://seattletimes.com/html/businesstechnology/2021715711_drivingamericaxml.html#!

    Lots more going on there than I thought initially.
    All very fascinating, and thank you for writing this article Mr Arnett!

  • shams kitz

    I'm glad to know that a few "adults" know what's up. ;)

  • SaintMarx

    Allow me to play devil's advocate with some of the points.

    First, who really idealizes the 1960s/1970s generation? Seemed like a troubled descent from drug-addled hedonism into the "me culture" of narcissism.

    The current generation is not obviously better, though.

    "Nearly 90 per cent of American college freshmen reported doing volunteer work in the past year, the highest level ever…"
    Are we sure this is not self-reporting bias? Was the volunteer work done (or claimed to have been done) just to bolster a college application? Was the volunteer work in the form of exploitative unpaid internships since paid work could not be found?

    "Young Americans are also more tolerant and accepting of diversity than older generations, including race and sexual orientation."
    Diversity in and of itself is not a value.

    "Young Americans are much more accepting of variations in sexual orientation than their elders...This and other surveys also find that young Americans are far more likely than older Americans to believe that same-sex marriage should be legal."
    This simply begs the question of progress, as not everyone believes this changing view is moral progress.

    "The survey researcher John Zogby calls today’s 18- to 29-year-olds the ‘first globals’ because his data indicate that they see themselves as citizens of the world and are more devoted than older generations to addressing global problems."
    Really? More than the "greatest generation" which sacrificed so many Americans for a European war?

    "We might reasonably hope that this portends more harmonious international relations in their lifetimes than their parents and grandparents have experienced."
    This is just speculation. Instead, we may just have more wars. Intimate knowledge of another culture does not imply peace (witness Russia's invasion of Ukraine).

    "Is ridicule likely to make young people more inclined to accept a dead-end job? Will hostility motivate them to become productive members of society?"

    Social pressure - positive and negative - is actually one of the most powerful motivators.

    • Sympathy Optimism

      if you're just playing devils advocate, then i can understand the grasping at straws and faulty arguments in the following examples.

      not everyone believes that the growing acceptance of variations is sexual orientation is moral progress. that is true, but since when does everyone jump on the boat for social or moral progress? you cannot refute that social acceptance of diversity is moral progress, no matter what some people say. some people are wrong. period.

      an entire generation of americans enthusiastically joining a highly propagandized war in europe is not the same as a generation that is highly concerned with global environmental issues. in fact, they are polar opposites. the purpose that one finds when they go to war is its own narcotic. it is not driven by love or regard for anything. war is destruction. war is death. a small group of planners in our government developed a path to american economic and military superiority post WWII and it rested on the fact that our land was safe from the destruction and chaos that was bankrupting the rest of the world. all they needed was 2,403 dead americans in hawaii to ignite america's blood lust.

      • disqus_MHw7a2dXsU

        a small group of planners in our government developed a path to american economic and military superiority post WWII

        This is absurdly wrong. That "small group of planners" predicted economic devastation after demobilization. It didn't happen. That "small group of planners" were shocked that people take their own initiative to build better lives for themselves without having to be told to by a bunch of arrogant asses working in government with self-important job titles.

      • cheeflo

        Your ignorance of WW2 and the role played by the United States in its resolution is exceeded only by your smug certainty that you even know what you're talking about.

  • Misanthrope

    If you're 21, you're an adult. There's no "emerging." "Emerging" is a label losers use to make themselves feel better.

  • disqus_MHw7a2dXsU

    Between 20 and 30, I held around a dozen different unglamorous, low-paying jobs. You know when I moved out of my parents house? A few months just shy of my 21st birthday. Having a series of unglamorous, low-paying jobs in your 20's is not a knew feature of being in your 20's. You know what is? Relying on your parents for food and shelter because you're too much of a lazy slacker to take adult responsibility for your life.

    • Publius

      When you were that age, low paying jobs actually paid for something. Now a low-paying job working 45 hours a week wouldn't pay for rent for one year, much less food. The PPP as well as real value of the minimum wage have plummeted. Don't believe me? Check out this chart about the minimum wage.

      http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42973.pdf

      Furthermore, if you think you can generalize an entire generation of people with the generalization "lazy slacker," you're not only misanthropic, but you're not very bright.

  • guest

    You are pushing an unsustainable economic system: when those "emerging adults" have kids, how will they pay for raising them? And when *those* kids want to spend until their mid-30s discovering themselves - whose basement are they going to be living in? Grandma's? Great-granmas?

    Ignoring all the psychology about narcissism and discovering oneself - this is unsustainable due to economics. It's a one-time consumption by children of their parents' assets.

    If you are a liberal: aren't you supposed to be all about 'sustainability'? This isn't.

    If you are a conservative: is this a viable economic model? How will your kids feed themselves when your money runs out? You better plan to work until you die, because you kids won't be able to feed or house themselves.

    If you are one of this generation: what will you do when your parents' money runs out? What will you do when YOUR kids want to spend a decade and more discovering themselves? How will you pay for it?

  • docscience

    Perhaps higher taxes, more class warfare and demonization of success, higher entitlement costs, higher energy costs, higher regulatory costs, more green lawsuits, more NIMBY, more licenses, more studies, more red-tape, and more government micromanagement can help businesses expand and hire these people.

    Open your eyes young sheep.
    YOU are voting for the very policies which destroy your future.
    Do us ALL a favor and stop voting if you can't figure this out.

  • Jan Lystad

    Viktor, your lack of understanding of economics is what this article gets so very, very wrong. you say it is a problem that everything is becoming monetized. But what is money? MONEY IS A UNIT OF VALUE. That is all. Everything has always had a value ascribed to it--and all the "volunteer" work that is done has a value. The fact that you don't get paid for doing it doesn't somehow make it better. In fact, it indicates that it is LESS valuable to the world than those things that ARE paid for. People are willing to pay for things that they need.
    This is why a heart surgeon earns more money than a massage therapist--the heart surgeon is adding more value to the world (and the supply of heart surgeons is lower, because it's hard). You want to add to society? Go earn lots and lots of money--because that means you were valuable to society.

    • David

      So Justin Bieber is around 3,000 times more valuable than a science teacher?

    • atimoshenko

      1. Money is not a unit of value (it is not valuable in and of itself), but a token of surplus value (social evidence that value was created but not consumed).
      2. In any partially collaborative endeavour, money can be obtained by both the creation of value and by the capture of value created by others.

      There is, in other words, more to economics than what is taught in Econ 101...

  • clarissa.tan

    but if you ensure compulsory education for the upcoming generation. you not only enlarge the economic divide for first and third world countries. but who to say, that in a couple years, a bachelors degree is not good enough, and you are faced with the fact that people are all going to require a master degree. the cycle will never end.
    i think if you want to build up potential, the key is to reform the education system. the old ways of teaching is not going to work anymore. you need an education system that can nurture the upcoming generation.

    also i think this whole study was very westernised. i'm in the national university of singapore and i can tell you it is quite the opposite. everyone here, does not have the same intend of just "fooling around" in their 20s instead they aim to make it big and to do it fast. of course, i'm not saying that this is exclusive to asian society cause i know there are very ambitious people in ivy league schools, who have dreams of a successful career.

  • marisaswanson

    I am so in love, love, love

  • Daniel

    Well, staying at your parents house without contributing is a luxury that only the children of affluent people can have. For those that have that luxury and whose parents are willing to foot the bill for years and years, it is a PRIVILEGE. I have no problem with that, since each person, if they have the resources, has the right to do whatever they want with their life.

    What I dont like is the idea that they are entitled to do so. You are not entitled to anything, nobody owes you a bit, and you dont deserve anything just because you are yourself. That idea of "deserving" is a marketing construction designed to make you spend mindlessly, without regarding whether or not you can afford it

    Most people have to go out and take on whatever job comes up in order to pay the bills. People with children will take those jobs and grind through them in order to raise their children. That's life. Life is hard.

    So be thankful for the opportunity you have to spend years looking for the job you really want and for feeling accomplished and happy. That's all I am asking for those privileged people that can afford to do soul search for years. I didnt have that chance and I had to work and fight hard for everything I have. Now, given the choice between spending years in my parents' couch doing soul searching and the path i actually took, I would pick the rougher path. Nothing more satisfying like getting their yourself, fighting along the way.

  • James

    Good article. But I think the author fails to make a meaningful distinction: no matter whether you leave school and join a prestigious consulting firm or move back in with your parents, the emerging adult is not satisfied with life and unsure where to find this satisfaction. This is not some effect of laziness or slackerdom. And the problem isn't solved once you find employment, even if it's relatively meaningful.

    The pressures my generation feels to find a place in this world—a respectable place, where work is meaningful, ideally fun, and the salary is enough to live comfortably, though humbly—is very real. For many, the pressure is oppressive. After finishing college, many are lost—even after earning a degree from a reputable 4 year institution. Other people, due to their smarts, ambition, or personality, drop right into a good job—the consulting firms, the tech companies, the promising startups. They effectively miss the “laziness” and “slackerdom” that supposedly characterizes emerging adults.

    But even after the young person has a full time, salaried job, with benefits, the sort of job their grandparents would have worked for 50 years, happily, we, the emerging adults, are unhappy. THERE MUST BE MORE TO LIFE. We all think this. Constantly. Our grandparents would have just gotten married and had kids. Our parents would have bought a sports car and found a time consuming hobby that they enjoyed.

    Young people of today see these options and are hesitant to jump in. We have been taught to question everything and consider all possibilities. As it turns out, this means we share an abiding discontent with the world. We've been told we should find a meaningful place, and we're looking. Constantly. Even those of us living in our parents' houses waiting tables. And I think the biggest question this article raises is: will we ever find it? Or will we, as the author puts it, eventually "trade [our] footloose freedom for the rewards of enduring bonds to others?" [read: married, with children.]

    The author sets out to champion the cause of the emerging adult but then sacrifices the queen to win his game. "Don't worry, parents. Your kids will figure it out, just like you did. They will arrive at the same conclusion, they'll just take longer to get there." I fucking hope not.

    In one sense, I feel the search for meaning is meaningless. As the phrase goes: the journey is the destination. Eventually, we'll all settle down and have rich memories and experiences from our "emerging adulthood" to enjoy for the rest of our days. "Happiness is what you make it," we'll tell ourselves. "We figured it out. This is it."

    But this also strikes me as weakness, or some pernicious result of "settling." It's a mental game we play to feel satisfied. The search should never end, and hanging your hat will only precipitate the spiral to irrelevancy that attends old age. What will the world look like if emerging adults refuse to abandon the fire of curiosity and desire for higher meaning as we age? I'm not sure, but it's interesting to think about. That is the most important point this article raises.

  • ferrozoica

    I was with you until -

    "One concrete goal should be to make tertiary education a universal entitlement in the 21st century..."

    Public education is failing massively and continues to do so. Adding another layer to this brain-washing, corrupted mess would only make things worse.

    Improve from the beginning, not when it's already (mostly) too late

  • kthejoker

    One thing not really touched on in this article is life expectancy. In 1966, your typical 30 year old male was expected to live to 70. Now they are expected to live to 77 - that's 10% increase, no small thing. That gradual lengthening of life expectancy has slowed down the natural cycle of retirement/replenishment in the job market, and is encouraging a sort of "recalibration" of age-appropriate life cycles. It remains to be seen how we will accommodate this recalibration.
    Great article!