Oh, Grow Up Already!

On Sunday, The New York Times Magazine cover story, “What Is It About 20-Somethings,” argued that society is in the thick of a changing timetable for the transition to adulthood.

To explain why young folks are stuck in a generational loop of the Peter Pan syndromeunwilling or unable to grow up, get a job and move away from mommy and daddythe article stated that the 20s shouldn’t be classified as adulthood anymore. The years are now being dubbed “emerging adulthood.”

The piece said that traditionally, the “transition to adulthood” is defined by sociologists as marked by five milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child.


I read the last lines of this article as I looked out over a sprawling slum of houses made of rusted tin siding in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s largest city.

Here, according to the country’s most recent demographic survey, 66 percent of women and 43 percent of men have no education.

Only 2.3 percent of women complete secondary education and 69 percent are illiterate. A woman generally has her first child before age 19, and has an average of 5 children.

Obviously, here in this impoverished country and in most developing nations, the words helicopter and parent are never paired, and the so-called traditional milestones listed in the article have no meaning. But even in the United States the idea that the road to adulthood is marked by five outdated transitions is only the stuff of Mad Men.

To be fair, the article concedes that some believe that generations moving lockstep through a set of milestones is an anachronism and references individuals who are single or childless by choice, or unable to marry because they’re gay. However, that still doesn’t do justice to today’s realities—by far.

To people of color, and anyone stuck in a socio-economic sinkhole far under the radar of The New York Times, these universal milestones seem not just absurd by insulting. For one, many never make it past the first milestone: completing school. Nearly 40 percent of black and Latino students don’t graduate from high school, and less than half of black males.

Moreover, a very significant number of black women—42 percent have never been married—and many women of every race choose not to marry. And, of course, in just about every state, marriage isn’t an option for gay men and lesbians. As far as children, growing numbers of people skip that milestone and simply choose not to have them.

Most strikingly, financial independence is out of reach of a vast number of 20-somethings, not because they refuse to grow up: It’s the economy. Though the article says that the trend predates our current recession, it is clear that the economic downturn has largely fueled what’s happening among young people.

And lastly, the International Labor Organization reported earlier this month that, around the world, 81 million young people ages 15 to 24 were unemployed—the highest level in two decades of record-keeping by the group. The agency warned of a lost generation as more young people give up the search for work. Globally these numbers are highest for women. In the U.S., the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 37 percent of people ages 18 to 29 are either unemployed and seeking work or unemployed and have given up looking.

So even as The New York Times wrings its hands over upper-middle-class 20-somethings who, in lieu of finding a real job, getting married and having kids, are backpacking through Costa Rica, going to graduate school on their parents’ dime or blogging from the family basement, the universal us—the rest of the world—lives on.

Linda Villarosa is on assignment for Ms. magazine in Ethiopia.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Scarleth White under Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. jarrahpenguin says:

    Thanks for writing this! I had the same reaction when I read the article. It's pretty absurd in this day and age to posit an ideal stage of development based on marrying and having kids. And I thought they really glossed over the social and economic factors contributing to the trends of kids living with their parents longer. Instead they seem to blame the "helicopter parents" for coddling their kids. It's a very white, middle-class ideal.

  2. Maria Guzman says:

    yes! when i was listening to this yesterday, it sounded more like a fantasy than anything else. how about a story about women and men that are forced to grow up too early? due to socioeconomic conditions that have nothing to do with too much leisure time, the story seemed like a concern for a narrow population. kudos for adding another dimension to this topic, which could really blow minds if it was applied to a mix of social positions.

  3. I very much enjoyed this article and good points all around. Set-life milestones never really applied, except maybe in the fantasy of 1950's Leave it to Beaver.

  4. Catherine A. Traywick says:

    while you make some good points, it is apparent to me that the author of the article was talking about american society (so i gathered from the author referring to society as "we" and referring to specific american historical flashpoints) and not speaking universally. The "traditional" markers of adulthood she mentions are considered traditional in the American psyche, and she doesn't invent them herself but rather pulls them from cuturally-relevant milestones identified by (american) sociologists. Whether they are realistic milestones or not, they have been regarded as such for generations, and I think the question of whether or not they are relevant today is part of what she's getting at.

    That said, a key point of the article – though not developed until the latter half – is that youth from different cultural and class backgrounds develop differently, and have different markers of adulthood, and that "emerging adulthood" means different things to different people. She doesn't assume a uniformly privileged experience of adulthood for all, but rather argues that "the peter pan syndrome" is a product of upper-middle class privilege.

    I'm pretty sensitive to ethnocentrism in mainstream media too, but I think this article is much more thoughtful than you're giving it credit for.

  5. Mako Fitts says:

    This analysis is right on! What's up with blaming young people for the wrongs of a global economic system that's designed to fail young people. I find the NY Times piece to reflect the woes of upper middle class parents who are tired of supporting their privileged children. Why not write a piece that reflects the realities of the majority of young people and not, yet again, centering the lives of the elite.

  6. I read that article the day before my birthday and I was so angry. It made me feel like every "respectable" person in America was disgusted with me because I'm unemployed. It makes me happy to see that others took issue with its tone and timing. Maybe 20 somethings should scrap the New York Times along with the failed global finance capitalism system that it loves so much and embrace something more applicable to real people and real life.

  7. Sheena Medina says:

    Linda, you are completely correct, the economy has everything to do with it. Anya Kamenetz Journalist, Fast Company and Author, DIY U, also responds to the NYT piece and perfectly sums up my thoughts on the mater. Check it out: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anya-kamenetz/whats

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