If anything has caught my attention through the myriad articles about student debt, especially those with first-person stories, it’s been the recurrent comment, I wish someone had told me…
- how much that I’d be paying each month…
- that I couldn’t get a job with this degree…
- that I didn’t need to attend a private college instead of a public university…
As I read the articles, my persistent thought was to wonder where in the hell the parent was. These major financial and career decisions – with repercussions lasting for decades – are being made by teens with no actual life experience. The deeper questions beyond these however, are whether 18 and 19 year-olds are adults and when we should expect that our offspring have reached adulthood.
It’s not an academic question. More parents are finding that their kids are retreating back to the nests, or seem to be only treading water instead of swimming for the bright, distant horizon as they remember that they themselves did. Our history is seemingly filled with examples of young people – adults – taking on the mantle of responsibility in any number of ways, whether in terms of career, marriage and family, or simply extraordinary acts of adventure and exploration. Of course, our history is also littered with far more bodies than we seem to have today, as more died much earlier in life of accident or previously incurable disease. Cholera, it’s what’s for supper… As much as we love our kids, after years of caring for and raising them, there’s an expectation that life after a certain point will be more relaxed with less of the stress that comes with children and teenagers and there seems to be a degree of regret when they do return, both that they’re unable to move outwards into a new life for themselves and that we have to return to our previous role. No offense to anyone reading this in their twenties, but just wait until you have teenagers.
To say that it was an academic question would imply that it was already settled and it now appears that it isn’t by any stretch of the imagination. Through the mid 1990s, the credo was that adulthood was defined by certain specific life actions – marriage, setting up a household, leaving home for a new job, having a child. But a psychologist named Jeffrey Arnett did the unthinkable and actually interviewed approximately 300 young adults, all in their twenties. The upshot of his findings from these interviews was that adulthood wasn’t a discrete location reached after passing identifiable waypoints, but that it was a process, fluid and imprecise with the interviewees responding that they often felt "in-between" adulthood and adolescence when presented with specific questions. This new view has become known as emerging adulthood. The defenders of the other side – that adulthood was reached by the assumption of specific roles at completing certain life actions – maintain their stance and that there’s no such thing as emerging adulthood; instead, it continues to be the purpose of the adolescent/teen years to prepare the way to adulthood.
The literal question is whether there really is such a thing as emerging adulthood or are young people simply "stalled" and somehow unable to reach adulthood? While I’m uncertain as to the answer myself, my own question is different: if they are indeed "stalled", what’s happening during the adolescent years that’s no longer preparing them for adulthood as with previous generations? What has happened?
Certainly one of the biggest differences is that so many more of our children are living in single-parent families. We’ve gone through about two generations since the divorce rate exploded in the 1970s and there’s certainly an impact that arises from growing up as a child of a split family, most especially when the father figure is absent. The obvious difficulty for the children is that the mother, who routinely got custody, was stretched like taffy as she had to both provide a roof over the head as well as parent and keep the house in a semblance of running order. I don’t believe that it’s a generalization to state that by nature, the mother has historically been oriented inwards to the family with an attention to detail and sensitivity that keeps the household and family in order. Conversely, the father was the parent who directed his attention outwards in order to help provide food, shelter and protection for the family. It was by watching the father that children learned best how to respond to the challenges provided by the outside world, and who made them feel most secure from its real and perceived dangers. When the father was removed – and the mother had to stretch to cover the difference – a significant minority of children suffered a loss and were consequently hampered in learning what a father could teach. Their collective ability was eroded and coupled with the continuing numbers of children affected by divorce, the cumulative erosion to what children could learn from a good father was deep and significant. This isn’t to say that all fathers are great models of how to respond to and interact with the outside world, but there’s been a significant cumulative erosion through two generations.
Even with this erosion across more than one generation, today’s generation is one which we’ve permitted them to insulate themselves from the outside world by cocooning within electronics. With kids today now spending more than six hours daily in front of some form of electonic screen – not counting the time tethered to an mp3 of iPod – they’re spending time alone and physically disconnected from the human interaction that they need for learning to live in the real world. They readily inhabit a virtual reality in which they’re connecting with all manner of people who create an online avatar that’s often nothing like their physical reality. Even for someone who’s worked through the years to keep the electronics under control, the pull is insidious. The result is that we have individuals who thrive in a virtual reality but are wholly unprepared for the harsher physical reality; this is especially the case for young people who are now having to work for older people who have far more and greater experience in this world.
This leads to the fact that our society is a far more complex place with greater demands than in previous decades and generations. While younger people are more comfortable with the personal technology than older people, the country runs on more complex structures than in the past. There’s a greater interconnectedness amongst the questions and issues facing us that requires attention, effort and critical thinking to understand. When you’re spending your time paying greater attention to the screens than the world around you, you’re at a huge disadvantage to someone who has paid attention. With the Occupy movement seemingly comatose after only a year of existence, its detractors dissect it and criticize the apparent naivete and hamhandedness with which it functioned. My thought throughout its existence was that it was akin to the political baby steps of a new generation having to learn to walk and function all the while being pushed about in the midst of a riot. No shit they’re disjointed and a bit goofy, they’ve finally unplugged and awakened to the political and social reality and are thrashing about. It’s like watching Neo being unplugged and flushed from the Matrix cocoon.
We’ve created an economic system predicated upon consumption, much of it increasingly mindless. Research has been done in improving advertising and driving the typical consumer into a decision that’s collectively good for the system, but bad for the individual. More is better, so supersize it…housing values only go up…go ahead and take on the college debt, it’s a good debt and an investment in yourself…If you’re a young person who’s been heavily tied into the electronic world, not paying attention to what’s occurring around you and there’s no one trying to take the time to explain this to you, then you’re fodder for the system until you suffer enough damage that you’re forced to critically re-examine and figure it out for yourself. The flip side to this is that our consumption shortsightedness has sent a large chunk of our livable wage jobs overseas; there aren’t the requisite jobs around anymore that will support the debt that’s incurred on behalf of the system.
Let’s face it, it’s hard to feel like an adult when the economic circumstances of debt and livelihood prevent or slow those steps that mark the supposed waypoints into traditional adulthood. Likewise, it’s hard to feel like an adult when there’s no one older to tell you that uncertainty and fear don’t depart just because you’re now considered an adult. That continues and you simply learn to harness it.
I do understand how you can feel "in-between" adulthood and adolescence. My college graduation occurred in the midst of a severe recession and my job-search efforts only resulted in a huge stack of rejection letters that festered in a desk drawer; when a friend came by one day to grouse that his B in Accounting was screwing up the GPA, I simply pulled the stack out and tossed it in front of him, telling him to shut up and get the hell out of here. My first year or more out of college was spent back living in my old bedroom, working at a job that barely paid enough to allow me to live at home on the highly reduced rent that my parents charged me, what my father jokingly referred to as Section Dad Housing. I now had the responsibilities that came with a job but wasn’t able to take on the other aspects of adulthood, living on my own and setting my own rules and boundaries, exploring the freedom that ostensibly came with true adulthood. But those were feelings and that didn’t mean that I didn’t continue the adult route of working at the job and continuing to search for a job and career that would permit me to be fully responsible for myself, my actions and decisions. Conversations with both of my parents taught me that uncertainty, nervousness and fear don’t just go away because you’re the adult; what changes is how you have to respond to them and handle them. To hear your 60 year old father admit uncertainty in the face of job and career change is highly instructive.
The upshot from my vantagepoint is that today’s typical 18 year old isn’t an adult, but is as Eldest’s college dean described, an adult-in-training. It will be our job to engage in the delicate, mistake-prone shift from guardians to – hopefully – good friends as she takes on her own decisions and grows in her own ability to handle her responsibilities.