Lately, I've been hearing and reading a lot about 20-somethings. I'm 24, myself, and it's been extremely interesting to read some of the research being done on my age bracket. Most of the findings suggest that, as generations go, mine is taking much longer than usual to settle into normal, stable adult lives. I can identify with that.When I graduated from high school, I postponed college for a year and backpacked through Europe instead. It was an incredible year - one that I wouldn't trade for anything - but looking back, I have a better idea of the reasoning that went into making that choice. Doubt played a big part in causing the prospect of impending adulthood to loom large in my thoughts. I remember how I felt the day after graduation: abandoned. In those days I was in the habit of turning my thoughts into poems; in one of them, I described (rather dramatically) being set adrift on an ocean, alone. On a sub-conscious level, graduation was a lot more like a death-sentence than an emancipation. Heading off to Europe was a way to push off the inevitable, spend an expectation-free year abroad, and hopefully, return better prepared. I didn't go alone either; two of my classmates joined me in a temporary escape from our formless future.
The New York Times recently ran an article on the 20-something phenomenon which had some pretty big numbers:
"One-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year. Forty percent move back home with their parents at least once. They go through an average of seven jobs in their 20s, more job changes than in any other stretch. Two-thirds spend at least some time living with a romantic partner without being married. And marriage occurs later than ever. The median age at first marriage in the early 1970s, when the baby boomers were young, was 21 for women and 23 for men; by 2009 it had climbed to 26 for women and 28 for men, five years in a little more than a generation."
It's tragic that the small number of people I've known who have successfully taken on some of the "adult" responsibilities that elude the rest of us have become irretrievably distant and cut-off - my first room-mate from college is just one example. When he got engaged, about a year after we started living together, everything changed very quickly. Only a few months later, he was married, had a new car, had graduated and gotten a lucrative full-time job in another state. Less than a year after that, he was a father. We don't talk or see each other much anymore. When he isn't working, he's spending time with his brand-new family, and when he's not doing that, he's spending time with couples, or co-workers - people he has a lot more in common with than I do. I'm happy for him, but I kinda miss him. Also, when I think of him, I feel a little bit guilty. "Why don't I have a job, or a girlfriend, for that matter?" I ask myself. "How come I'm not responsible like that?"Why is this happening, and how long will it last? What effect will it have? Nobody seems to have any answers. There is a psychologist who's making a case for "emerging adulthood" as a new and previously nonexistent developmental phase, but his position seems to be an unpopular one, or at least a problematic one for most psychologists. Financially, no one is sure what effect the postponing of marriage and entering the workforce will have in the long term.
Maybe the most significant epiphany we can have as a result of all this is that our parents can't explain, fully sympathize with, or do anything about the difficulties we have to deal with. The world is, quite simply, a changing place, and changing faster all the time. If anyone is going to sort out this new world, it's got to be us. It may not be fair to have to start from scratch, so to speak, but we can do it. We ARE adults, even if we don't have some of the same responsibilities that our parents did at our age.
Daniel Gateley keeps a blog at DeeplyInexplicable.com