Defending the actions of “not quite adults”

In recent years, there has been a lot of research and conversation about the actions of 20-something adults who have moved back home in greater numbers and are waiting longer to marry and pursue careers. Are these 20-somethings lazy, prudent, or are they simply responding to a tougher world? While much of this conversation is negative, a sociologist talks about why he would defend the choices of these “not quite adults”:

Q: How do young people today compare with the past?

A: As we evaluate young people today, it’s like we’ve got the wrong benchmark. That kind of quick start to adulthood that so many generations have in their heads — all that grows out of the postwar period. (But) that’s the anomaly. It was a time when people were quick to leave home. They were also quick to marry. Why? It’s because economic opportunities were ample and social conventions really encouraged it. It was expected and also possible. But if you look further back, you’d see that a lot of the patterns today — with young people in a period of semi-autonomy— was also true of the decades before World War II.

Q: What worries you most about the future?

A: There’s so many negative portrayals of young people, and there are so many worries about why young people are taking their time. My bigger worry is we don’t want to push kids out of the gate before they’re ready. A quick marriage is clearly more likely to end in divorce and involve kids. That’s not good. Quick parenting? It makes it difficult to attain your education and to work full time and build skills and experiences that would help you over the long haul. That’s not good. A quick departure from home means you have fewer resources to invest in your future. Early departures from home are much more likely to result in poverty. That’s not good.

Q: Back to the main idea here. Why is it that today’s young adults have such a bad rap?

A: Maybe it’s just that each generation comes of age in its own time and what is true of one can’t easily be applied to the next. It seems like a timeless theme in history that older generations look down and think the younger one screwed up. What really matters and what we hope to show in this book is just how different the world is they’re trying to navigate, and it’s not just about personal choices. It’s about these big forces that have changed the very landscape of life. We have to not just point fingers at young people but also look at the things they’re doing right and see what we can learn from them.

An interesting perspective as this sociologist argues that this is really a debate about cultural perceptions and values. Within the American context, this idea of autonomy that arose after World War II is particularly interesting. It contributed to these ideas about leaving the house and quickly starting an adult life as well as led many to move to suburbs where they felt they could control more of their own destinies.

This leads to a broader question. What leads to better social outcomes for those in their twenties: to stay at home longer and take advantage of existing social networks or to strike out on their own at an earlier age? This researcher suggests several ways these actions improve the life changes of 20-somethings in several ways: lowers divorce rates, limits the likelihood of living in poverty, and increases the opportunity that those in this group can obtain a worthwhile education.  But I haven’t seen any research looks at data that would allow us compare people who follow these two different routes.