It seems we're always going on about the hows and whys and what's of the contemporary twentysomething, as evidenced in recent reactions to the New York Times' piece on Emma Koenig's blog "Fuck! I'm in My Twenties!" to the many "thoughtful" or "navel-gazing" (or both) posts on Thought Catalog to concerns that this new Me generation is altogether too narcissistic, needy, self-important, entitled, lazy, depressed—or some combination of the above. There's a glut of talk about what it means to be a "young person"—probably, there always has been—though there's an important caveat to note about any discussion of an age group, which is that you can hardly lump people born in generally the same decade into one bucket. We're all individuals here; we all have our differences.
But there are key shifts in terms of how we live (by ourselves, deep into our lives; sometimes unmarried and with a group of roommates into our 40s), and when and if we marry at all. The path to adulthood is no longer a clear one that consists of graduating from high school, possibly going to college, getting a job, a spouse, a mortgage and a house, and then having kids. There are all sorts of variations in growing up growing all the more acceptable, and a lot of the traditional milestones have been changed out for other things, depending on the place in which a person lives, his or her career, and a certain First World freedom at charting our modern goals and dreams.
According to The Wall Street Journal's Melinda Beck, this has caused some concern. Specifically, "many parents of 20-somethings worry that their offspring haven't yet found a career path, gotten married or become financially independent." Earlier generations might have asked, Why don't these kids just settle down and get married? Or, What's wrong with staying at the same company one's whole life? But those specific concerns are less relevant to today's twenty and thirtysomethings, who've been brought up to believe that they should have the freedom to choose from options well beyond what their parents were offered. While their parents may worry, this isn't a bad thing, according to the experts.
In fact, waiting to make key decisions (like to marry, to buy a house, to have kids) may actually be crucial to later success in those matters. Experts who study development in the years between 18 to 25 have found this time period, previously lumped into the general category of "adulthood" (i.e., 18 until you start being called a senior citizen?), to be a key phase in human development that they call "emerging adulthood." The brain continues to develop into one's thirties, and research suggests that "people are better equipped to make major life decisions in their late 20s than earlier in the decade." Peter Pan Syndrome, meet your scientific justification.
In the old days, of course, those decisions would have already been made. Per Beck:
"Until very recently, we had to make some pretty important life decisions about education and career paths, who to marry and whether to go into the military at a time when parts of our brains weren't optimal yet," says neuroscientist Jay Giedd at the National Institute of Mental Health, whose brain-imaging studies of thousands of young people have yielded many of the new insights. Postponing those decisions makes sense biologically, he says. "It's a good thing that the 20s are becoming a time for self-discovery."
But, of course, life is different than it was back then. People live longer and, with the help of science, can have children at a later age. While once, maybe, you simply had to grow up and be an adult by the age of 18 or 21, now you've got a lot more time to try things on for size and experiment. This has led people to wonder whether the youth culture is self-absorbed and unaware, and writers like Kay Hymowitz to suggest that twentysomething guys are slackers who need to grow up and do the right thing. And following that, for the twentysomething defenders to come out.
A strong defense comes in the form of science, which says that "emerging adulthood" is a rather good thing—and that when you do finally make your decisions, ideally, they'll be ones you can really support. So, tell your parents to get off your back! As Beck writes in The Journal: "'It should be reassuring for parents to know that it's very typical in the 20s not to know what you're going to do and change your mind and seem very unstable in your life. It's the norm,' says Jeffrey J. Arnett, a professor of psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., who coined the term 'emerging adulthood' in 2000." It could be argued that this is, in some ways, exactly what society was going for—allowing future generations the luxury to extend their childhoods into their adulthoods and focus on exactly what they want before committing to a specific way of life. In order to maximize the adaptable potential of one's brain in the time of "emerging adulthood," experts suggest reading, taking classes, and learning, as opposed to "watching talking cats on YouTube."
By their late 20s, most emerging adults have found work, relationships, higher self-esteem, life satisfaction, and even financial independence, according to the studies. So, no one should worry. You're just doing what needs to be done to grow up, even if talking cats on YouTube are so two years ago, according to the emerging adult brain. As for how to be older than a twentysomething: Start by complaining about twentysomethings.