Saturday, September 4, 2010


The New York Times Magazine recently published an article about this so-called extended childhood/early adulthood that folks my age are apparently "suffering" from: a pathological unwillingness to move through some of the Big Life Steps that, I guess, serve to separate the men from the boys: graduation, leaving home, financial independence, marriage, and babies. I guess my demographic is clutching onto various holdovers from our angsty teenage days, in that we (okay, I) take a long time between enrollment and convocation, or we're unwilling to relinquish our parent's money, or pop the question, or pop out a kid. The question the NYTM raises: is this lengthy space between high school and "adulthood" a healthy new era full of self-discovery, or is it merely a chasm filled with self-indulgence?

I was chatting with a girlfriend tonight, and she mentioned that one of her colleagues is about to father a child. She felt that, at the age of twenty-eight, he was too young to making new lives happen. I pointed out that he had been married, and settled, and employed, for a while: he was right on track, life-cycle-wise, to becoming a dad. It felt like there's a long stretch of highway between his place in life and my own.

Progress has been made, however. I just moved back to Toronto, after a self-imposed exile/brain vacation in my hometown, and it feels like this is where I'm supposed to be. My parents' home is so comforting, but it's not where I live anymore. My life is in Toronto. My time in Stratford was sort of a sleepaway camp for the newly graduated: save money, reconnect with the family, work a forgettable job. But it wasn't like coming home, to the place where I feel most like myself.

It's not that I'm not grateful to my family for putting up with a summer's worth of messes and computer cords across the living room floor. I happen to like the people I'm related to: we're a smart, funny bunch of folks, and spending time with them was decided not a chore for me. But there was an odd disconnect with the town around me. The last time I had a Stratford summer was five years ago. I loved to binge drink and work crazily long hours at a busy eatery. This time, I was much more interested in sitting on my back porch and talking on the phone to people about kissing protocol, board meetings, and business ventures. Realizing that your family and your parents helped shape you into the person you are today, but that you also need to leave that household to find your own path, is step number one to Big Adult.

Most mid-twenties Toronto citizens have hit most of these markets in some way or another. The general trend among my pals is long-term relationships, often with the kind of cohabitation that makes the Catholic church fan itself like a distressed Southern belle. Not many of my friends are married, and only one of those young-person unions has worked for more than a couple years. Tripping into a full time job doesn't make someone an adult, especially not the type of entry-level jobs that are often a recent graduate's most likely option. Transferring your financial dependence from your parents to your bank is, at best, a lateral move. Having a child is often not the same as "deciding to have a child" in your late teens and early twenties. And so on.

The article uses the word "settle" freely: people settle down, essentially affixing themselves to a lifestyle. Settling down is a sign that one is stable: reliably at the same address for more than a few months, able to pay off a bill, feed a child, procure a job. Maybe the author also meant the calming-down after the headiness of adolescence. But settling also has negative connotations: settling means "accepting despite a complete lack of satisfaction." Maybe my cohort's unwillingness to march into adulthood, to hit all our markers, is the result of not wanting to settle while we settle down. Instead, we're looking for alternatives, creating new and different milestones for ourselves. Instead of "getting married," maybe we're having happier shorter-term relationships. As we move out of our parent's houses, we're moving in with self-selected families made of up friends and relatives. We're taking control of our reproductive destinies by using birth control and destigmatizing terminations, thus acknowledging that children aren't, for everyone, the ideal project to take on once we graduate at the ripe old age of twenty-two.

And we're less likely to take shit from those who poo-poo our recalcitrance about the whole process. Is this new pause after teenagerhood and before parenthood a generation balking at a culture that's raised smart, hard-working kids and then shunted them into a world that seems like a lot of drudgery for not a lot of joy? Or is this a genuinely new step in the process of becoming an adult? That remains to be seen. But the hand-wringing, the insistence that my generation is screwing it up, needs to stop. We may not be adults, but we're not idiots.


  1. I took great offense to that New York Times article, partly because I don't fit what they're talking about and mostly because I kind of DO. Yeah I have a capital C career and I live on my own, but I'm not married nor do I have children nor do I have a mortgage nor do I want any of that at this day and age.

    I think they missed the true point -- that people USED to do that because they had to. With the women folk not working, what else did they have to do besides pop out babies and keep the man's house tidy while he was working all day? Even in the 80's, women didn't get a post secondary edumacation, they worked as a secretary/nurse/teacher until they got knocked up, and then it was off to raise them babies. Only now do we have both genders comfortably pursuing lives outside of procreation, and it's kind of awesome, because there's so much more getting DONE in the world today. We've got plenty of time to create a capital-f Family, but for now we're just too busy absorbing the world around us.

    Suck on that, New York Times!

  2. This reminds me of when Vanity Fair ran that essay contest that tried to get people our age to write in and say what's wrong with our generation because we didn't protest against Vietnam and get high in a field for a weekend musical festival, as if that totally changed the world.
    Then VICE came back with my favourite issue of all time [We Hate Your Parents Too] listing all the reasons why baby boomers suck and why their generation wasn't even as close to as good as they thought it was.

    To me, this is just more of the same shit. This article makes it seem like the people who are taking longer to get where they are "supposed" to be are only doing it because they're lazy.
    Why does having a baby constitute adulthood? Teenagers have babies all the time and that doesn't make them adults. And guess what, maybe we don't have jobs because there aren't any jobs to HAVE. My boss told me he gets tons of resumes from people with master's degrees who want a job, but he can't hire them. They're ridiculously overqualified and they still can't get a break.

    I have a full-time job, I am financially independent, I file my own taxes and yet, the possibility of being able to own my house seems further away than China. The idea of being stuck with a $450,000 mortgage gives me the chills.
    No wonder people our age are rejecting the markers of an adulthood that is increasingly unsustainable.

  3. Thanks for the link to the Times article. Here's a bit of background.

    On page 3

    "Hall, the first president of Clark University — the same place, interestingly enough, where Arnett now teaches — described adolescence as a time of “storm and stress,” filled with emotional upheaval, sorrow and rebelliousness."

    This is a reference to "sturm und drang", the famous manifesto of the German romantics exemplified by the book by Goethe, "The Sorrows of Young Werther" published in 1774. It's not a new idea.

    In that less complicated era, privileged and bright students' adolescent exploration began earlier than today - Goethe went to the University of Leipzig at age 16 - and ended earlier.

    The task of leaving the parent's nest and checkbook behind and and "settling down" was just as difficult 200 years ago as it is today - it's just later now due to current educational and cultural expectations. But it gets done eventually.

  4. Richard, thanks for pointing out that people started and finished school much earlier in "the olden days." I'd also imagine that it was much more acceptable to live with your parents until you, uh, took a bride; the modern-day equivalent to living in their basement until you and your girlfriend get a place together.

    One more thing to point out about the Times article is that the life stages seem geared to the relatively well-off and the heterosexual. I think it's especially unfair for an American social scientist to put getting married and having a baby as the last two steps, leaving millions of homos, legally speaking, out in the cold.