Why Gen Y's "Slow Path" to Adulthood Is a Good Thing

Last Updated Apr 4, 2011 9:58 AM EDT

From bad romantic comedies to serious debate in newspapers, America is trying to figure out what's going on with young people. Are they spoiled slackers abusing their parents' hospitality until nearly middle age or enterprising achievers whose lives are blighted by the recession?

First person accounts and passionate feelings may rule the discussion on the internet, but the bookstore provides less emotional, more empirical answers to these sorts of questions. Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood, and Why It's Good for Everyone, a new book co-authored by Oregon State University professor Richard Settersten, marshals a decade's worth of research to explain why young people are taking longer to reach adulthood -- and why, contrary to popular opinion, that's not a bad thing.

He recently spoke to Entry-Level Rebel about what's fact and what's fiction in the debate and, in the course of a fascinating chat, shared startling statistics about the perils of early adulthood, shot down my argument that the crisis among men is overblown, suggested finger-wagging baby boomers re-examine their thinking and offered sound advice to young people aggravated by the long road to self-sufficiency.

Are young people delaying adulthood just because they're immature and coddled? That's the impression you could get from the media.
Absolutely not. One of the reasons we wrote the book is because so much of our research, gathered over a decade, really counters the public conversation about young people today, which often starts from these really negative points.

The evidence is clear that today a slower path to adulthood is a good thing and too quick a start can be risky. Very large social forces and changes that have occurred have completely altered the experience of the early adult years.

Can you explain what those are?
Obviously, one massive change is the economy. It takes a lot longer today to get jobs that allow you to live independently, let alone raise a family. It takes a lot more resources just to get launched, especially when you factor in the cost of higher ed, the cost of housing and other things.

Also, relationships between parents and kids have changed a lot. What we see today is a set of closer and more connected relationships. In thinking about whether young people are immature and coddled, people are quick to point to the young people and we're quick to say, new kinds of kids are produced by new kinds of parents. They don't just come about out of the blue.

These closer relationship are, in our view, a good thing because in our society today how you do as a young person is highly dependent on how much support your parents provide.

The phenomenon of young people being financially supported by their parents well into their 20s (or beyond) must be class specific. Not every family can afford it. Is the need for increasing levels of parental support widening the gap between the have and have-nots?
Absolutely. The diverging destinies of young people is one of the major themes of the book. Those who are well positioned up front as they make their way into their early adult years manage to do pretty well over the long term to a large degree because they have financial support and guidance from their parents. And those who don't have those kinds of resources really have trouble staying the course and often plummet.

There has been a lot of chatter lately online about a 'crisis among young men' do you think the changing path to adulthood is affecting the genders differently?
Young women are doing far, far better in this period of life than young men. There's something going on with young men in our society. Problems like high school drop outs, college drop outs, unemployment, are all far more commonly experienced by men.

This goes back to the idea of diverging destinies. There's a group of young people we call disconnected who are basically idle. They're not in school. They're not in work and they're not in the military. Already in 2000 about one in six young men between 18-24 was completely idle. And that's overall. Among white men it's one in ten. Among blacks, Hispanics and American Indians it was one in four.

The media focuses so much on coddled kids, but there's a huge, invisible class of young people that's just not part of our public discussion and who are really in dire straits. A large proportion of this group are men.

So if you're a parent and your 25-year-old son wants to move back home, you should cheer rather than complain?
It turns out that living at home can be a really smart decision in today's economy. If it allows young people to be in school when they otherwise would not be able to afford to be, or be engaged in internships or apprenticeships that will lead to success later on, that's a good thing.

We should be more worried about people who go too fast. If they move too quickly into marriage it's more likely to end in divorce. If they move too quickly into parenting, it makes it hard to get an education or build experience that's going to help them over the long haul. If they leave home before they're ready, they have far fewer resources to get by, let alone invest in themselves. The kids who leave home too quickly are exactly the kids who spiral downward into debt and poverty.

The bottom line is living at home keeps a lot of young people out of poverty. The statistics are remarkable. The poverty rate for young people between the ages of 25-34 is only nine percent. If many young people weren't living at home, the estimate is that 43 percent would be in poverty.

Do the young people you talk to feel that they're getting a fair start at life or do you encounter a lot of anger and resentment?
I think young people feel, especially now in light of the recession, that they're anchored in a crummy historical time. They're frustrated because they feel they're being judged by insensitive older generations as not able to live up to some standard about how this period of life is supposed to look and feel that's totally out of date and even impossible to achieve.

In America there's this set of expectations which developed in the period after World War II when this sort quick-start, lock-step life emerged. But if you look back to the decades before World War II the rates of living at home with family were much higher than they are today. It's just that we're sort of stuck in the middle of the last century. We evaluate young people using benchmarks that are really outdated.

What advice would you give a 20-something who is worried because his career and family life doesn't appear be on the fast track?
There are a couple of things. We're not saying be a slacker. This is a time for major investments in yourself. This isn't a time to sit waiting. You should be doing everything you can do to move ahead but be patient. And be flexible and realistic in your planning and the goals you're setting.

Be prepared for failure. This is something many young people struggle with, especially if they've been parented in ways that have really built up their self-esteem. Failure is a hallmark of adult life, but it's not easy. For so many young people, their first encounter with real failure happens in these years -- it's a big wake up call. Be focused on what you can learn from failures, how they can equip you to make better decisions in the future and figure out how to become more resilient in the face of the next hardship.

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(Image courtesy of Flickr user Seattle Municipal Archives, CC 2.0)
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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.