Poor Options, Smart Choices

If, sadly, a twenty-two year old is killed by a bus, the news media will quickly report the untimely demise of a man. Ask a group of middle-aged Americans about a twenty-two year old who lacks a full-time job and lives in his parent’s house, and they would be unwilling to call that person an adult. Our society’s inability to come to grips with the complicated lives of young adults, the men and women in their twenties, is at the heart of a national debate. Some think that the twenty-somethings are slackers, the products of mindless praise and parental accolades. Others see them as victims of impersonal changes in the economy. All agree, however, that massive changes are taking place. Shifts in the economy, society, family life and education add up to a rapidly transforming “normal” path to adulthood.

In the not too distant past, a reliable triumvirate of self-sufficient job, marriage and children were clear markers of adulthood for the high school graduate or twenty-something. That definition has gone wobbly. Jobs that might finance self-sufficiency are ever harder to come by and marriage is more and more a marker of socioeconomic status, with wealthier Americans marrying in much greater numbers than those with fewer resources. The choice to become a parent is moving along similar lines, with wealthier and better-educated women having children later and later in life, while women with less are becoming mothers earlier in life. Home ownership, particularly since the economic crisis of the past few years, is not even on the horizon.

While the signs of the shift is all around us, hard analysis based on meaningful evidence is difficult to come by. Not Quite Adults, a book by Richard Settersten and Barbara E. Ray, is a welcome attempt at making sense of it. Based on information and observations from the MacArthur Research Network, a multidisciplinary group of scholars with broad connections throughout the social sciences, the book gives its premise in its subtitle: “Why 20-somethings are choosing a slower path to adulthood and why it’s good for everyone.” It is a bold claim that is not deeply supported by all of the arguments. Instead, Not Quite Adults paints a portrait of a society in transformation and many good people adopting different strategies in an attempt to cope.

The book is not rich with statistics or tables, but macroeconomic forces are ever-present and their influence cannot be underestimated. Without jobs that provide a measure of self-sufficiency, high school graduates face incredible odds to reaching the middle class. The gateway, as everyone knows, is college – and not necessarily college skills, but a college degree. A college degree is the aspiration of most American youth and their parents, even if it is a poor fit. The authors sagely note that it has become such a prevalent destination in part because of the paucity of meaningful options.

College costs figure prominently. Settersten and Ray emphasize that while the media may love stories about college graduates with excessive debt and no options, an alternative is equally likely: young adults dropping out of college because of a fear of taking on debt. They note that the majority of debt held by young adults is not college debt, but rather consumer debt. An education, the authors affirm, is a personal investment that should be calibrated with a student’s preferences, values and goals.

Most interestingly for those of us who toil within higher education, the extended comparison of a Mercedes versus a Corrola is a useful metaphor. The Mercedes costs several multiples of the economy Toyota. Both cars are well made and provide reliable transportation. For different drivers in different circumstances, different cars are more valuable and make more sense. The same holds true for an education, the authors emphasize, and that students should try to be more purposeful in their educational decisions. It is sage advice, but extraordinarily difficult to live. Life often gets in the way.

That same sense of contingency pervades our economy. This new generation is not unengaged or unwilling to work. Rather, they face an indifferent economy with uncaring employers. It behooves younger workers to remain guarded and less committed. Further, as expectations for meaningful work collide with reality, disillusionment and frustration result. One or two poor choices and a young adult’s options decrease significantly. Along similar lines, young adults willingness to commit to one another in wedding is similarly difficult.

Young adults are stressed for good reason. Their support systems, family and a large and robust network of friends, are increasingly necessary. Referencing the work of sociologists and political scientists, Setterstein and Ray emphasize the power of these networks. With the delay of financial autonomy and parenting, friendships serve for support, opportunity, information and wisdom, especially in a more mobile society.

This is no way mitigates, however, the prominence of parents in the lives of their young adult children. The MacArthur Network identified three basic kinds of parent-child relationships: extremely involved (and often mocked as the helicopter or snow plow parent), hands off and more traditional, and neglectful or indifferent. In today’s world, the success of a child often depends upon that first kind of parenting. College graduates can go home again, now without shame, and it often just makes good sense. The authors made a good point that social attention and the media seems unduly focused on the shifting lifestyles of the well-supported. We do not, though, devote much time to the majority of young Americans who, unfortunately, are not given this high level of parental support.

When it comes to voting and civic engagement, levels of participation among the young are steadily decreasing. The data reveals a provocative inter-generational split. Those that came to adulthood under Bush have a different opinion of public commitment than the younger adults, who supported Obama in record numbers. Cautioning us not to expect a deep shift, the authors emphasize that civic engagement rests in great part on trust. College graduates who are better able to fend for themselves and have access to the levers of power are much more likely to have faith in the system, and a corresponding desire to become involved, than their less educated peers.

The book is consistently level-headed and positive. It asks us to consider the larger picture and its emphasis is on the reasoned actions of young adults throughout the land. What people are doing makes sense, but it may not be, on the whole, for the best. My reading of the society described in Not Quite Adults is not terribly positive. Increasing inequality and ever-greater economic instability for young adults strikes me as a recipe for unhappiness and stress. Our responsibility as educators is to help students gain the best skills and knowledge to navigate this terrain. Our responsibility as intellectuals – a loaded word, I know – is to investigate and question what is happening, why it is happening, and whether or not we want it to take place.

David Potash

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