This weekend in the New York Times Sunday magazine, they're featuring an article titled, "What Is It About 20-Somethings?: Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?" by Robin Marantz Henig. Oh boy. Here we go again.
Let's face it: The New York Times doesn't exactly have a great track record for talking about young people. Their coverage of Millennials seems to range from Tom Friedman's accusation of lazy young people in his now-infamous "Generation Q" column to its constant coverage of "hipsters" in the paper.
But this weekend's magazine cover story actually looks at all kinds of factors for "growing up," including the science behind brain development. "Neuroscientists once thought the brain stops growing shortly after puberty, but now they know it keeps maturing well into the 20s," Henig writes. The idea that young people reached a point of maturity at 18 or 21 — or even 25 — seems to be an outdated one from a scientific perspective.
The article also looks at many of the "traditional" markers for adulthood: "completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child." Henig notes that psychologists and sociologists are beginning to recognize that such rigid milestones may no longer be relevant in the modern day.
In 1960, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had, by the time they reached 30, passed all five milestones. Among 30-year-olds in 2000, according to data from the United States Census Bureau, fewer than half of the women and one-third of the men had done so. A Canadian study reported that a typical 30-year-old in 2001 had completed the same number of milestones as a 25-year-old in the early ’70s.
They're beginning to call this longer period of transition between adolescence and adulthood "emerging adulthood," or a time when many of these milestones aren't for everyone. After all, fewer women than ever are having children and the average age of marriage is creeping ever upward (in addition to the LGBT folks who aren't allowed to marry in most states).
The whole idea of milestones to adulthood seems silly in a modern culture. Financial independence might be the only admirable goal when it comes to getting young people to transition from adolescence to adulthood. But with the economy in the dumps and young people experiencing higher unemployment than the rest of the working population, such a marker these days seems an impossible standard. As Anna North at Jezebel writes, "Maybe what we need is not to define a new phase of life but to accept that life doesn't really have concrete phases."
The article does note that the idea of parents supporting their children (instead of the way it was a century ago, when children generally helped support their families) is nearly universal these days:
According to data gathered by the Network on Transitions to Adulthood, a research consortium supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, American parents give an average of 10 percent of their income to their 18- to 21-year-old children. This percentage is basically the same no matter the family’s total income, meaning that upper-class kids tend to get more than working-class ones. And wealthier kids have other, less obvious, advantages. When they go to four-year colleges or universities, they get supervised dormitory housing, health care and alumni networks not available at community colleges. And they often get a leg up on their careers by using parents’ contacts to help land an entry-level job — or by using parents as a financial backup when they want to take an interesting internship that doesn’t pay.
The stereotype of Millennials as a generation that is entirely dependent on his or her parents for all needs — ranging from looking for jobs to paying for rent — is tiresome. It's also insulting to young people who come from poorer families.
The difference here is a matter of scale. Young people from worse-off families are contributing to their children's futures, but they can't contribute nearly as much as their wealthier counterparts. As long as young people are entering the job market with different advantages, the disparities between the rich and poor seem ever more evident — especially when unemployment among college grads is so much lower than college or high school dropouts.
Rather than thinking of all Millennials as young people are overly privileged, it might be worth our time to consider those who, even with their parents' help, still qualify for Pell grants and can’t afford that prestigious unpaid internship.