This past summer, a New York Times Magazine article asked a loaded question: Why are many young adults taking so long to grow up? According to the article, 20-somethings are “forestalling the beginning of adult life” by deferring steady career tracks, jumping from romantic partner to romantic partner with little thought of marriage or children, and even moving back in with their parents after college graduation for lack of other options.
The article produced a backlash of indignant responses from articulate 20-somethings on blogs and web sites like Lemon Drop. I decided to take to the streets and interview young Chicagoans on their experience as 20-somethings in the early 21st century. My methods were unscientific to be sure, but I can at least claim one area of expertise the experts in this field don’t have: I’m in the proper age group.
Early this fall, I slunk around crowded coffee shops in Belmont, restaurants in Pilsen, student apartments in Hyde Park, and CTA Red Line trains with my highly professional and technologically-savvy notebook and pen, furtively going up to strangers and asking them for a few minutes of their time. All of the people I interviewed preferred to withhold their last names.
I spoke to a group of socialist activists chatting over steaming mugs of black coffee in a cafe in Belmont, a former University of Chicago Swim Coach-turned operations analyst, and an easy-going muralist active in the Chicago Burning Man scene. Despite the diversity of the people I interviewed, they agreed on one thing for sure when I asked them if 20-somethings really refuse to grow up: It’s not their fault.
“People put it in a negative light,” Paul, the former swim coach, told me over a long commute from Hyde Park to Belmont on the CTA Red Line, during which he reacted quite politely to my harassment. “They make it seem like we’re not being responsible, or something. But I think its society that’s changing. It’s important to redefine what it means to be an adult in this era.” After our interview, he opened a bag of neon-orange pumpkin Halloween candy and offered me one. It’s important to reassess the meaning of adulthood, indeed.
Societal change was a common sentiment I heard, particularly among the people I interviewed at Kickstand, a coffee house in Belmont that feels like your grandmother’s kitchen, assuming your grandma is incredibly hip and trendy. Craig, a recent fashion-school graduate typing on a Mac laptop and sporting a pink and blue plaid button-down and a silver skull mused “living a boho style of life might be in right now.” He supposed that this, however, like all other trends, could eventually go by the wayside, ushering in an era where young people once again follow in the footsteps of their parents, marrying and putting down payments on houses in their early 20s. As for him, he was perfectly content to continue working for Playboy’s licensing and manufacturing department, which I thought was not too shabby.
Rachel, James, and Peter, three friends and political activists I interrupted as they were catching up over coffee, attributed the issue to societal ills. James, a bearded PhD candidate in U.S history who recently lost his job in California due to the university budget crisis there, made the point that this generation is the first in a century that can be expected to be in a worse financial position than its parents. Indeed, a recent report by the public policy research group Demos has claimed exactly that.
“The consistently rising standards of living that were the norm for a century just don’t exist anymore,” James told me, shrugging over his coffee as his friends nodded in affirmation. “At the risk of sounding like a hopeless idealist, I think there’s something wrong with this country. We’ve got an environmental crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Something needs to change. I don’t know if we’re the generation to do it, but maybe the next generation will be able to revive the activism of the 1960’s.”
Hannah, a recent transplant to Chicago who is trying to break into the theatre scene, mused that the remarkable thing is not so much the attitude of 20-somethings themselves but the fact that these issues are part of popular culture today: “It’s not so much what the article in The New York Times said but the fact that it addressed the issue at all,” she told me as she sipped a glass of whisky at an informal gathering in a Hyde Park kitchen. “The only way I’ve heard it described is a paradigm shift.”
The 20-somethings I interviewed may agree that if they are seen as directionless and irresponsible, it’s a by-product of popular culture, and not a personal choice. But do they care? I got the feeling that they, like the blogs and web sites, were giving society and The New York Times the proverbial middle finger. Yes, times have been better. But does that mean they’re going to move in with their parents if the going gets tough? Not if they can help it. Maybe they can’t find a 9-5 entry level-type job, but that gives them an excellent opportunity to take a risk and go into business or create art- in short, to do what they actually love doing.
Annalee Letchinger, a career counselor at the University of Chicago Career Advising and Planning Services, says she has seen a proliferation of students who are willing to take career risks: “I think there has been the dawning realization that there is no guarantee that students are going to make a lot of money, and that has been a liberating thought. If the playing field is more equal, they have been asking questions “what do I really want to do? ”
Letchinger believes that the decade from 20 to 30 is perhaps part of a larger life stage that begins in college, one that isn’t defined so much by so-called traditional milestones like marriage, but rather as a period of unique energy and excitement. “It’s a time to explore deeper and possibly much more substantive relationships,” she told me in an interview in her office in Ida Noyes. “Young people are usually quite focused and bring more energy to the workplace than older people might.” The people I interviewed agreed the 20s should be characterized in ways other than marriage, family, and other typical milestones.
Brendan, a North-side resident and muralist with Teddy Bear-like proportions and demeanor, scoffed at the idea of following the traditional milestones associated with being a “grownup.” “I’m not concerned about buying a house or a car,” he said, looking genuinely offended when I suggested that one day he might want to. “I have a girlfriend that I like a lot, but why do I have to marry her?”
Paul, the former swim coach with the tasty snacks, summed up this attitude most succinctly: “I’ve done a lot of interesting stuff with my life so far. I’m not waiting for society to give me some kind of ceremony to mark my adulthood.”
I decided to get the perspective of some younger people as well. Melissa and Angelica, two college students and native South-Siders I talked to as they were finishing up dinner at a small restaurant in Pilsen, believe that the indecision and uncertainty that accompanies being a young person starts sometime in college. “Young people don’t have a clear vision of what they want at all,” Melissa said. “People change their majors and career aspirations 4 or 5 times in college, yet at the same people have this idea that you should know exactly what you want and have a clear vision of where you’re going if you want to be successful.”
To me, it seemed as though Angelica and Melissa have already become quite jaded and depressed about their futures, without yet having embraced the carpe diem, stoic attitude of the older people I interviewed. Angelica said she had always been motivated to work hard and excel academically, but she wasn’t sure the work was worth it anymore for a future that looks so uncertain. A math and computer science major at DePaul University, she said her parents always influenced her to work hard: “My parents had a totally different situation,” she said, shrugging over the remnants of her meal. “They never had an opportunity to go to college. I’ve had the motivation to excel academically because of that, and I’ve always had a clear vision, but I don’t want to do it anymore. It’s just too stressful, it sucks. It’s not going to end with college, either. The pressure will never let up.”
Melissa agreed with her. “It’s the stress of how we have to be more successful than our parents,” she said, appearing somewhat resentful. “They just had to make a family and get a job to support everyone. We have to be better than that, more successful than they were. Maybe that’s just how it is for minorities, but I think that’s how it is for everyone.”
Why is the prospect of the future so stressful? According to Melissa and Angelica, it’s not just the economic situation. It’s the prospect of being stuck in a cycle of jobs they are overqualified for and aren’t relevant to their career aspirations. “It’s pretty easy to get a job in Chicago,” Angelica assured Melissa. “Just 20-somethings don’t want those jobs. No one with a Master’s Degree wants to work in retail.”
The prospect of being unable to find work after graduation from higher education is daunting indeed, and a reality for many graduates. After all, a study released last February by the Pew Research Center found that about 37% of 18 to 29 year-olds have been underemployed or out of work during the recession- the highest share among the age group in more than three decades. Is the situation as desperate as popular culture makes it out to be? For example, can today’s generation of 20-somethings be compared to the Lost Generation of the 1920’s, as BusinessWeek magazine suggested in 2009?
The people I interviewed agreed that the comparison is completely hyperbolic. Branden, however, may have unknowingly coined a phrase for the zeitgeist of today’s young people. It’s a reflection of the diversity that is a defining characteristic of our times: “There’s an uncertainty in our generation about what we want- some people may see us as a Lost Generation, but we’ve reached a point where we can’t be defined by one term. There are too many different sub-cultures and identities in our society today to lump us all into one category. I believe all those different identities have fused together to make a Generation of Variety.”
It seems fitting that the Generation of Variety would follow a diverse set of paths on the road to adulthood. And this seems less irresponsible or deviant and more a mechanism of adaptation and survival in new and interesting times. In short, 20-somethings today are less like Peter Pan and more like Henry David Thoreau: less itinerate and more non-conformist.