By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Twentysomethings Delaying Adulthood: Maybe Not So Mysterious

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This weekend's N.Y. Times magazine has a lengthy article on people in their twenties as a group that seems to be delaying assiduously the markers of adulthood: independence from parents, marriage, childbearing, and careers. I admit that I only skimmed the ten-page article; I could not bring myself to read, line by line, what very quickly tipped its hand as a very superficial analysis. The gist of the article is that this rudderless existence may signal the emergence of a new stage of development, on the par with adolescence--a stage that will require social recognition and support.

Why did I find the analysis so superficial? The typical academic mindset just can't see what is actually dysfunctional as dysfunctional and tends to canonize whatever it observes as "normal" and immune to challenge. I would like to make several points about this rudderless phenomenon of drift among "twentysomethings."

1. I have observed the same drifting phenomenon among this age group, especially among, surprisingly, graduates of a very prestigious public university. The particular subgroup I came across seemed quite alienated, dispirited, and bored--full of ennui. Sometimes that alienation was reflected in a fetish for body painting or tattoos, which I took as a sign of that ennui and of immaturity.

2. Yet, this rudderless existence is, contrary to the impression made by the article, not new at all. I know people in their fifties who went through their twenties in exactly the same way: casual sex with serial partners, moving from city to city, no passionate attraction to a particular calling or vocation, finally settling into something just in the hope of maximizing income. So, my first advice to the author of the Times article is to look further back in time: the twentysomethings of today are simply following the pattern set by the baby boomers in the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

3. All this drifting, in my opinion, reflects some deep emotional and psychological problems which I categorize as despair, despair at finding true love, despair about marriage as a workable and desirable institution, despair about careers that are fulfilling, and general despair about any meaning or purpose in life. That general despair is reflected by a complete indifference to the very idea of God so that even if the possible existence of God is granted, any such God is viewed as indifferent to and distant from one's individual life, desires, and needs.

Now, let me state a few, blunt opinions. Having entered middle age, I find myself more impatient with beating around the bush because I have seen so much of it for so long, to no purpose. The article notes the delay of the traditional adult milestones such as financial independence (whether from parents or others), marriage, and career.

Well, if, as a male, you can get all the sex that you want anytime you want without being expected by females to even remotely contemplate marriage, you end up, voila, delaying marriage. If you are getting all the sex you want, maybe even on a daily basis with a live-in partner, then your female partner is likely accommodating your needs by taking care of the contraception angle. Hence, you are, of course, delaying parenthood. If marriage is not on the horizon, then there is also no urgency to quickly establish a career so you have enough income to marry, buy a house, and support a family. Your female partner will likely even pay half your rent and maybe even provide other financial assistance, in addition to providing sexual services, a highly convenient economic arrangement that further reduces the urgency to get on with a career.

In other words, for previous generations (pre-baby-boomer generations), to get steady sex you needed to get married. Good, marriageable girls did not supinely accommodate and hence did not contracept. In turn, to get married, you needed to be financially independent of your parents and establish a career path.  In other words, the joining of steady sex to marriage, naturally pressured people to grow up and get on with it. Today, you can get steady and varied sex without marriage crossing the mind of anyone involved. Hence, in my opinion, many twentysomethings have now for decades drifted along without any sense of urgency about marriage or parenthood or about becoming financially self-sufficient in a promising career as soon as possible.

That's my take, but I think it takes into account the uncomfortable elephant in the room that too many in academia ignore at the expense of dealing with reality. Sometimes the explanations are not so complicated. You do not need to grow up to get all the sex you want. Hence, many are growing up much, much later than was true in prior generations.