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What Is It About 20-Somethings? -

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This question pops up everywhere, underlying concerns about “failure to launch” and “boomerang kids.” Two new sitcoms feature grown children moving back in with their parents — “$#*! My Dad Says,” starring William Shatner as a divorced curmudgeon whose 20-something son can’t make it on his own as a blogger, and “Big Lake,” in which a financial whiz kid loses his Wall Street job and moves back home to rural Pennsylvania. A cover of The New Yorker last spring picked up on the zeitgeist: a young man hangs up his new Ph.D. in his boyhood bedroom, the cardboard box at his feet signaling his plans to move back home now that he’s officially overqualified for a job. In the doorway stand his parents, their expressions a mix of resignation, worry, annoyance and perplexity: how exactly did this happen?

It’s happening all over, in all sorts of families, not just young people moving back home but also young people taking longer to reach adulthood overall. It’s a development that predates the current economic doldrums, and no one knows yet what the impact will be — on the prospects of the young men and women; on the parents on whom so many of them depend; on society, built on the expectation of an orderly progression in which kids finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and eventually retire to live on pensions supported by the next crop of kids who finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and on and on. The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain un­tethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary (and often grueling) Teach for America jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life.

The 20s are a black box, and there is a lot of churning in there. One-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year. Forty percent move back home with their parents at least once. They go through an average of seven jobs in their 20s, more job changes than in any other stretch. Two-thirds spend at least some time living with a romantic partner without being married. And marriage occurs later than ever. The median age at first marriage in the early 1970s, when the baby boomers were young, was 21 for women and 23 for men; by 2009 it had climbed to 26 for women and 28 for men, five years in a little more than a generation.

We’re in the thick of what one sociologist calls “the changing timetable for adulthood.” Sociologists traditionally define the “transition to adulthood” as marked by five milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child. 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 theUnited 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.

The whole idea of milestones, of course, is something of an anachronism; it implies a lockstep march toward adulthood that is rare these days. Kids don’t shuffle along in unison on the road to maturity. They slouch toward adulthood at an uneven, highly individual pace. Some never achieve all five milestones, including those who are single or childless by choice, or unable to marry even if they wanted to because they’re gay. Others reach the milestones completely out of order, advancing professionally before committing to a monogamous relationship, having children young and marrying later, leaving school to go to work and returning to school long after becoming financially secure.

Even if some traditional milestones are never reached, one thing is clear: Getting to what we would generally call adulthood is happening later than ever. But why? That’s the subject of lively debate among policy makers and academics. To some, what we’re seeing is a transient epiphenomenon, the byproduct of cultural and economic forces. To others, the longer road to adulthood signifies something deep, durable and maybe better-suited to our neurological hard-wiring. What we’re seeing, they insist, is the dawning of a new life stage — a stage that all of us need to adjust to.

By the way, the two shows they mentioned failed in their first season. No one wants to watch that.

As for 20somethings...

It's been like this every decade for 20somethings as long as I can remember.

The problem isn't NOW.

The problem is that our 20s go by really fast, before most of us can figure out a plan.

I keep thinking about the five milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child.

The last two are increasingly not chosen in America.

The middle one (financially independent) is increasingly hard in a jobs-poor country.

Leaving home depends on financial independence.

And completing school? A lot of us are starting to question if school is worth it at all.

so let us create some new milestones instead!!!!  what a fun exercise that could be.

Any suggestions? Community service? Acts of kindness?

national service? international travel? first company? 

I like those milestones. I like them a lot.

I fail to see these observations as a social problem or something else we should start worrying about.

What's the worst that can happen with this trend, from any perspective?

worse genetic offspring from having kids at an older age?

Interesting thought.  Haha--worse than what?

Hmm, I'd wager genetic birth defects don't occur at significantly higher rates by age within natural fertility ranges (based on my personal and family history as much as reading widely).  I'd also presume other high risk factors attend age demographics and that's what leads to spikes in genetic birth defects across all age ranges.  Perhaps we're seeing more birth defects occur for people today later in life simply because more people are having children later in life and we're finally getting enough data for a "normal" distribution to show up.

On the one hand women, on average, naturally have an earlier terminal age for fertility than men because they must deal with the greater physical and emotional demands of carrying a child to term and all the exhausting effort that follows, while guys just have to get it up, point and shoot and then go carouse after a nap--a relatively low, special olympics' grade quality of sexual performance where just showing up wins you a medal and then you leave.  And therefore women might face increased risks of birth defects by waiting longer to bear children because women contend with a fixed and aging inventory of eggs mixing in with underdeveloped and emotionally immature men at all points in their lives.

While on the other hand men might be facing more pervasive, insidious and intractable influences increasing the risks of birth defects in their fertility--at all ages.  There has been documented, rising rates of male infertility from declining sperm counts and increases in spermatozoa defects worldwide.  Some point out these trends correlate to higher pervasive amounts of estrogen in our environment, where persistently increasing amounts are found in SAD diets and even public municipal water supplies.  Another factor is that historically adult men continue to be more likely to live lives of debauched excess, chronic stress and suffer from the added insults of demoted social ranking, especially since John Wayne and Reagan passed out of cultural favor--each these influences have been implicated as precursors to male impotency, a rise in irregular spermatozoa and frequencies of Bob Dole and celebrity sponsorship of erectile dysfunction commercials.  So perhaps being in a hurry to become an adult male earlier and remaining one for longer might not be such a good thing for a guy to aspire to in western culture these days, and something a smarter 20s something guy would want to defer for as long as possible, "Hey mom, is my laundry done yet?!"

And maybe, given us American guys' genetic predisposition for delayed onset of emotional maturity in behavioral terms, it makes more sense for us to start families later.  I know I did.  [Hmmm, well let's just fact check that assumption about me even reaching emotional maturity with my wife... Ok, whew, she says, "Yes, yes very much so" and so I'll leave this paragraph as is.]

I vote starting a family later in life, at least as a healthy guy, is a very good thing--it sure makes an ongoing relationship of emotional engagement much, much easier and having kids much more fun.

Nice post, Rob.  well thought out. I wonder if another aspect of having kids when older is how physically active a parent can be with them.  

Meh...maybe, but I'd still bet the other way and side with 20 somethings' choosing delinquency in all things adult:

If you're a man able to have kids when you're older, it's probably because you've been smart or lucky enough to take care of yourself along the way and stayed fit up to the point necessary to attract a wife who's still fertile and wants to wager all of her DNA potential on you in the first place, or else figured a way out of the pre-nup and into your bank accounts.

I guess the follow-on questions are both whether or not being a physically active father matters in raising a kid (write off all people with limiting physical disabilities if so), and if so then how active must a father be to live up to whatever minimum physicality standards we wish to set... perhaps only those that we anticipate will decline with later age: full contact sports, running a marathon, playing hungry hippos, winning at chess, being able to stay awake without drooling?

PS The reason I don't need to discuss women's potentially waning physicality being an issue as an older parent is because just being a birth-mother at any age is a physically active performance great enough to trump the vitality and stamina of any male athlete at any age.

PPS  Jared, just noticed your avatar and love the continental rib-eye.  I'd eat that every day, raw.

thank you, Rob.  And yes, let us give it up to the ladies!!!  woot!  child bearing!

Better them than me.  I wouldn't have enough courage for it.

Jared:  I always wondered if your American meat avatar was a statement about the military.  Is it?

My observation re "optimal" parenting age:  There are as many variables as there are couples, each with unique capabilities and compensations.  My parents were 40 when I was born; my husband and I were in our early 20's when our kids were.   We're a fucked-up/happy, thriving, loving, productive folk.  And I like to think we've beaten the odds.

the Steak USA is an image I liked, nothing hidden or deep there.  

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