The Millennials: clearly, something is wrong with them. But what is it? The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have both attempted to dissect today's young adults, drawing on a bit of sociology, economics, and psychoanalysis. Even if you believe the thesis of Millennial exceptionalism is balderdash, it's fascinating to examine how these competing publications have come away with sharply different diagnoses of the woes of today's youth. The Wire covered Robin Hennig's 8,000-word New York Times Magazine treatise on Millennial malaise when it first came out weeks ago. Now we're revisiting it to compare with a new offering from Andrew Cherlin and W. Bradford Wilcox in the Wall Street Journal. Here are their takes on the problems facing twenty-somethings today:

  • Living With Parents  Henig's piece is built around a single question: "Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?" Henig looks at a variety of factors contributing to the rise of twenty-somethings putting off marriage, moving back in with parents, and switching jobs with a frenzy unheard-of in later decades of life. The economy, she admits, is a factor, but delayed adulthood--as defined by traditional markers of financial independence, marriage, and so forth--is "a development that predates the current economic doldrums." An information-based economy demands an education that takes longer to attain, while "cultural expectations" have shifted. "Parents," for example, "might regret having themselves jumped into marriage or a career and hope for more considered choices for their children." Delayed adulthood is perhaps most visible among the privileged, but the sociologists Henig talks to say it is not confined to a single class, and is not simply about "self-indulgence," though the phenomenon is rare in the developing world. Delayed adulthood in America may reflect the recognition of a distinct phase of life spent learning and figuring out how to get through the rest of our--now much extended--lives.
Why does it matter? Because if the delay in achieving adulthood is just a temporary aberration caused by passing social mores and economic gloom, it's something to struggle through for now, maybe feeling a little sorry for the young people who had the misfortune to come of age in a recession. But if it’s a true life stage, we need to start rethinking our definition of normal development and to create systems of education, health care and social supports that take the new stage into account.
  • Not Going to Church  Andrew Cherlin and W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociology and public policy profess at Johns Hopkins and the director of the National Marriage Project, respectively, look at a specific slice of today's youth: the working class. It's likely, they say, that the children of the baby boomers, particularly the working class ones, are being hit hardest by the tricky combination of the recession and the shift to "outsourcing and automation." Not only that, but Cherlin's and Wilcox's research suggests these youth are being handled a double-whammy of social alienation: "they are losing not only jobs but also their connections to basic social institutions such as marriage and religion." The forces at work in delayed adulthood, which Henig mentions, Cherlin and Wilcox also note: "Across all social classes ... Americans now believe that a couple isn't ready to marry until they can count on a steady income." But that means the working class is hit particularly hard: "they don't think they have what it takes to make a marriage work." Meanwhile, working-class young adults without jobs or spouses become "reluctant" to attend religious services. It would be one thing if this were about individual choice, say the writers, but instead it looks like a trend that is being forced upon this class, while "college-educated Americans ... are now living more traditional family and religious lives than their working-class peers." Here's why this becomes important:

Will their [the working-class young adults] social disengagement leave them vulnerable to political appeals based on anger and fear? Will their multiple cohabiting unions and marriages prevent their children from developing a sense of attachment to others?

These are the kinds of questions that our nation will confront unless we can narrow the economic and social gap between a middle class that is managing to hold its own in our postindustrial economy and a working class that is falling further and further behind.