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Emerging Adults: The Upside

There was a time not so long ago when a popular high school graduation gift was a suitcase.  Not for nothing this gift marked the young person as a newly minted member of the adult clan bound for independence and autonomy.  Armed with wallet full of small bills from family, friends, and neighbors, and either a dictionary for college or a pair of new work boots for the factory floor, high school graduates set off to conquer the world with their suitcases in tow.—introduction to “Not Quite Adults”

“Conquering the world” translated to college or training, followed by a job, marriage, kids, and a home, often by age 30 or younger.  As we all know, not anymore!  Now we have “emerging adults” who take their twenties and sometimes into their thirties to follow that path.  The reasons for the generational change—and the ensuing debate—has spawned industry of experts and grown into an area of serious academic study.

“Not Quite Adults,” the most recent book to look at emerging adults, drew on extensive research by the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, which has been collecting data for more than a decade.After slogging through mountains of data and interviewing more than 500 young people, authors Barbara E. Ray and Richard Settersten came away upbeat and hopeful about emerging adults, positing that they are not “spoiled slackers” but rather reflect a generational difference in attitude toward work, school and marriage.

We had met Ms. Ray when she was in New York starting research on her next book about how the recession impacts the lives of young adults.  We spoke to her  recently via phone from her home in Chicago and talked about the book’s key findings and the critical role  parents play in their children’s development into adulthood.

Q. You divide young adults aged 18-30 into two groups. The “treaders” are barely staying afloat while the swimmers are succeeding. Let’s start with the treaders:

A. About 60 percent of young adults are treaders.  They have a hard figuring out what to do with their lives. They have a string of jobs with low wages; they don’t have job security, and don’t have good income. They are in a precarious situation and the first set back—the car breaks down, they get sick without health insurance—puts them deeper in a hole that’s harder to get out. This is the first generation that won’t do better than their parents did financially because of poor schooling and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs.

Q. And who are the swimmers?

A. They are the other 40 percent of young adults with about 20 percent what we would categorize as elite.  The swimmers will probably do better than their parents. Swimmers are cultivated from early on to be successful; they are taught how to compete; how to position themselves, and how to sell themselves. They are very selective in the colleges they choose and they’re also very ambitious and very connected to social justice issues.  It’s really a very impressive group of young people.

Q.  You found that “strong, healthy relationships between parents and young adults” are one of the most significant factors in determining whether young people succeed.

A. We found that parents and kids are much closer than in generations past. Over and over we heard, “My mom’s my best friend,” not in an icky way but more that “I feel comfortable talking to my mom about issues and using her as a sounding board. Now that I am no longer a kid I feel she really she hears me.”  This reflects how this generation of parents has been involved much more directly for much longer periods of time in their children’s lives than previous generations.

Q. When their kids were growing up, many parents told them to “shoot for the stars.” Did we set them up with unrealistic expectations?

A. The recession is really challenging the notion that “I can be anything.”  In the 90s and early 2000s it seemed young adults could walk out and get a job and climb up the career ladder.  The recession is the antidote to the notion that “The world is my oyster.”

Q. Your book offers the following advice:  Hyper-involved parents, step back and don’t do so much for your young adult children. Under-involved parents, step-in and get more hands-on.  Sometimes it’s hard to know what’s too much and what not enough.

A. I think parents need to create a net not a nest for their adult children. The time for giving lectures is over.  Advice is one thing but pressuring and harping, “What have you done today?” is not good. That kind of pressure is not helpful at a time when kids are trying to figure out a plan.  It may take some hard knocks but they—not the parents–have to take the initiative and go out and apply for jobs and network. Parents can’t do that.

Q. Sometimes parents feel a sense of failure when children move home.

A. I think parents shouldn’t feel guilty when their kids come home because it’s not their fault.  There are many reasons beyond the recession. The social norms of parenting have changed.  There are not as many good jobs, especially for those without a good education.  We are living in an in-between time, between the old ways of becoming an adult and the new ways that are unfolding.  Young adults don’t know how to respond and living at home can make everything easier as long as the child is moving toward a goal of independence.

Q. You believe that living at home while trying to sort out the career is actually not a bad thing.

Living at home is okay IF young adults are actively engaged in activities that move them forward down the path to adulthood and the path to a more secure future. It’s much more expensive and competitive to get started today than for previous generations. The home can be a launching pad. They can move home, pay down their debt, and look for a better fit in job market. If they are feeling financial pressure because of rent, a car and other expenses and are desperate to take any job at all that’s not a good strategic career move.

Q.  Why do you call young adults “generation skeptical” about work and marriage?

A. Employer loyalty goes both ways and employers have not been loyal to employees in the work force. This generation is quite aware of that from their own families.  Many saw parents laid off after 20 years with the same employer. As a result they approach work with more skepticism, knowing that there are no lifetime jobs,  They see jobs as stepping stones and once they stop learning and see no more advancement they will move on.

Q. What about what the elusive work-life balance?

A. They saw their parent always on, always working, always connected to the crackberry.  They saw their parents work until 10 p.m. just to keep their jobs. This generation is re-thinking work-balance.

Q. Marriage also generates a degree of skepticism.

A. The divorce rate made them skittish about marriage.  They tend to see marriage as a capstone to a life well lived for when they have completed their education, gotten their career established and for when they have found a true soul mate. The economic gains women have made have also played into the delay of marriage.

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