I swore that never again would I write in defence of rotten, videogame-playing, basement-dwelling kids. They were on their own, I said, unless they wanted to call me down to watch a zombie movie.
But this week The New York Times featured on its website a lengthy and ominously toned story entitled “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” in which science writer Robin Marantz Henig explores psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett's theory that people in their twenties inhabit “a newly recognized stage of life.”
Honestly, it makes you wonder just who has too much time on their hands?
Dr. Arnett's research itself seems entirely un-accusatory. He'd be the cool dad on the expert block. He builds on older studies demonstrating that children's brains continue to develop well into their twenties and that society needs to label this developmental stage “emerging adulthood.”
I'd dispute some of what he claims (it feels too culturally and class-specific), but the real problem with a study like this is that it has been too long since anyone redefined the benchmarks by which we measure the adulthood we demand children reach.
The benchmarks for maturity Dr. Arnett employs (those traditionally used by sociologists: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having children) are, considering the current costs of education and housing, mostly anachronistic.
On the other hand, the average 20-year-old's cell-phone contract is as complex as my parent's first mortgage was and, considering that mobility in the contemporary job market makes early home ownership less desirable, it's probably a more practical expenditure, for them.
While she tips her hat to the new socio-economic reality, Ms. Henig still warns us that the “traditional cycle seems to have gone off course” because young people without “permanent homes” are competing for “unpaid internships or temporary (and often gruelling)” jobs.
Wow, some extended childhood. Is that why so many label these kids the “entitled” generation – because they refuse to live in the 1970s? And yet, I note, are increasing going with that hair.
Most of what the article reports isn't new; it could be the blurb on the DVD for Reality Bites, a film about “kids today” – that was made 16 years ago. I imagine that, like 60 per cent of Dr. Arnett's twentysomething subjects, the characters in Reality Bites would have reported that they “felt like both grown-ups and not-quite-grown-ups.” That's an unstartling finding.
Feeling both grown-up and not grown-up is a timeless, ageless, human state, explored in poetry and fiction for generations. It's currently being explored by a generation with miserable job prospects and good access to birth control, that's all.
I suspect that my own parents, who raised children while in their twenties, would have answered that question the same way, had anyone thought to ask them, or were they to have asked it of themselves, in that rather less self-conscious time.
As with the recent spate of anguished articles about motherhood and the disenchantment that sometimes accompanies it now (the emphasis is always on now), there's a glossing-over of past experiences of adulthood at play here.
Everything's bathed in an emotionally convenient false nostalgia for a time when mothers were mothers and fathers were fathers and both were adults – for a time when we were children.
Hovering over this “immature adults issue” and given much weight in the article are the (phrase-of-moment alert!) “helicopter parents.”
A “helicopter parent” is, as far as I can tell, any parent who does something that one imagines one wouldn't do, if one were in that parent's situation. This imagining is easily done, as we seldom love someone else's child (or have the same learned and intuitive sense of what that child can bear) as we do our own.
“My children are ‘loved'. Other people's children are ‘coddled’,” the helicopter-parent theory runs. It's the same theory that explains why everyone else's children are horrible – or twentysomething and working at Starbucks, “slouching” toward adulthood, according to The New York Times.
However, again (sigh) in defence of rotten kids with terrible parents, I'm going to dispute that. For example, it's worth noting that study after study has concluded that, much as people like to bemoan it as a dying art, spanking isn't good for children. It doesn't make them better behaved, nor does it make them better, happier adults. Yelling? Oddly similar.
The Times piece suggests to me, unintentionally, that it's also reasonable to question whether all of the misery that attentive parents are accused of saving their children from isn't as beneficial as was believed, either.
What if, while some young people rise to an emotional or financial crisis, learn from it, and reap benefits, others merely fail and never quite get back on their feet? And what if individual parents of children, even of people in their twenties are the ones best able to gauge how much adult-child-assisting should be done?