‘The stretched-out walk to independence’

This New York Times article about young adulthood lasting into middle age intrigued me — and not just because I’ve lived it:

People between 20 and 34 are taking longer to finish their educations, establish themselves in careers, marry, have children and become financially independent, said Frank F. Furstenberg, who leads the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, a team of scholars who have been studying this transformation.

“A new period of life is emerging in which young people are no longer adolescents but not yet adults,” Mr. Furstenberg said.

National surveys reveal that an overwhelming majority of Americans, including younger adults, agree that between 20 and 22, people should be finished with school, working and living on their own. But in practice many people in their 20s and early 30s have not yet reached these traditional milestones.

Let’s see: I finished college at 22, and I moved out of my parents’ house to begin my first newspaper job within a month of graduating. However, unlike a lot of my friends, I was a late arrival to marriage (Jacqui and I got hitched when I was 38) and home ownership (I was 42 when I reached that milestone, thanks to the D.C. region’s horrifying housing bubble, which forced us to put off buying a house for several years).

It looks like this societal shift is here to stay, for three reasons. First, of course, people live longer, healthier lives. Second, indicators point to several years — maybe a decade or more — of slow economic growth. That will force many college graduates to live at home longer than they might have otherwise.

But the big driver of this trend has been with us since the Sixties: the remaking of the American Dream. Previously, it was a well-paying job, a spouse, 2.2 children and a house in the suburbs — all before you turned 30. Today, it’s a quest for personal fulfillment and a life that fits your own aspirations, not society’s. That “quest for meaning” manifests itself in many ways: multiple college degrees, frequent career changes, taking a year (or more) off to travel, and so on.

Those things enrich life in valuable ways,  but they inevitably delay what society considers our traditional responsibilities. (Of course, if the economy takes a nosedive off a cliff, the self-actualization crap won’t matter anymore. We’ll all be living at home with our parents — and not because of grad school, either.)

But as always, predictions are tricky, especially about the future — and even more so when it comes to the social sciences. Real life is always more interesting than the research that measures it.


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