16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
Emergent Adulthood and the New ‘20s
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sun, 10/17/2010
It begins like this: You ask your friend what his son is planning to do after he graduates from college in a couple of months. “He’s not really sure,” your friend tells you. “He’s looking into internships and thinking about grad school. He’ll be back in town while he waits to find out what he gets. He’s going to work part time at my sister’s office for a few months as the applications go in.” Back in town, you think – you mean, he’s moving back home?
Or like this: Your 25-year-old daughter, who has been seeing the same guy for two years, acts like the exact opposite of that quintessential, where-is-my-ring young woman of days gone by. None of her friends are getting married, or even seem to want to get married. When you ask her if she and her partner are thinking of deepening their commitment, you just get a blank stare. “Married?!?” she says. “That seems pretty permanent.” She has, however, just announced that she and her boyfriend are moving in together. She’s happy to be saving on rent.
Or like this: You invite your 23-year-old niece down from New York for Christmas since she lives far from her own family. She’d love to come, she says, but she isn’t sure when she’ll arrive. She has two jobs and has to switch shifts with three different people to get the long weekend off. Her roommate might be able to give her a ride down, saving her on the bus fare, but her roommate isn’t sure if she’s going away for the holiday or not until she hears from her friend out of town. Your niece says she will send you a text when she’s on her way, but her plans never finalize enough to get a sense of when she’ll arrive. You get a call from the bus station at 10 pm on Christmas Eve to come and pick her up.
Welcome, my friends, to what may be a new developmental life stage, formerly known as “your 20s” but now also coming to be known by the term emerging adulthood . The word “emerging” is used because in many ways, people in their 20s act and are treated like they are adults, and in many other ways, they don’t act like adults, and sometimes are not treated like they’re adults, either.
There are other terms less flattering for this age group, like “Failure to Launch” and “boomerang kids”…so named, because, like a boomerang, they keep coming back to you no matter how many times you toss them...
You may be intimately familiar with this life phase through the events in your own lives and in the lives of those around you. You yourself might be home again after a stint in college, or because your job or jobs have dried up. Your kids may be coming back home after college. Or they have a place to live and several jobs, but not enough to pay their expenses, and certainly none that offer health or retirement benefits – so you help out with money and resources, and you’re putting them back on your health insurance.
You may be wondering what exactly is going on with the 20-somethings in your lives and in the world. You may be wondering what’s going on with yourself.
The 20-somethings may not seem to be striving to accomplish or to get settled in the way that you might expect. They may seem particularly hard to pin down – whether with their time or their plans or their relationships or with their commitments in general. If you have noticed these things about this age group, you are not alone.
There are new studies and reviews coming out that suggest that many of today’s 20-somethings don’t seem to be really sure what direction to head in, either in their work lives or their personal lives. They float from one thing to another. They hang around their parents’ homes. Or they travel. Or, they intern. Or, they get more education. Or, they work part time jobs that don’t pay enough to live on. Those around them feel like perhaps those in their 20s have not quite started their adult lives yet – and the 20-somethings often agree. Although ready for freedom and optimistic for their futures, many 20 somethings feel that such things as marriage, or “settling down” into a location or a career path, are things that they aren’t quite ready for.
Studies show that this life phase is marked by statistics that underscore the stories that we all have heard, statistics that refer to “the changing timetable for adulthood.” A recent article in the New York Times Magazine reports that “one-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year. 40% move back in with their parents at least once. [People this age] go through an average of seven jobs in their 20’s, more job changes than in any other [age] stretch. Two-thirds spend at least some time living with a romantic partner without being married. And marriage occurs later than ever” – since in the early 1970s the average age for one’s first marriage was 21 for women and 23 for men, while in 2009 it was 26 for women and 28 for men. That’s an extension of five years in just a single generation.
For what it’s worth, traditionally, sociologists have pointed to five milestones as marking one’s arrival at adulthood. These milestones are completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having a child. “In 1960,” the New York Times Magazine article reports, “77% of women and 65% of men had, by the time they reached 30, passed all five milestones. Among 30-year-olds in 2000, according to data from the US Census Bureau, fewer than half of the women and one-third of the men had done so.”
So our sense that this group is a bit slower to launch into traditional adulthood than groups in previous generations had been at this age is backed up by evidence, both statistical and anecdotal, from the 20 somethings themselves. So what’s going on with our 20-somethings these days?
Surely the bad economy isn’t helping, because if there aren’t entry level jobs with a living wage to be had then we surely can’t expect folks in their 20s to find them. Nor is our continuing shift to an information-based society helping, because nowadays we need workers with higher levels of education to fill our ranks, and education takes time to get, and money, often from our parents. It doesn’t help that it’s hard to find health insurance, and it doesn’t help that our workforce is so mobile, or that housing is so expensive. All of these factors make it harder to become independent quickly. These factors contribute to young people’s real need for support as they go through these stages.
Some may say that there are social factors that come into play as well. There’s the somewhat unflattering description known as “helicopter parenting,” where a parent is so heavily involved in a child’s life that they swoop down and intervene whenever a child is unsure or heading in the wrong direction. It’s easy to see where such a parenting style may extend well into and beyond one’s college years, and also where a child raised under such a style may end up lacking either the drive or the skills to take her life into her own hands at an early age.
Our modern expectations of how an adult life should look certainly comes into play as well. We not only have these five, somewhat arbitrary markers of adulthood that I mentioned before as a standard – which include, as I said, everything from finishing your education to having a baby. We also – and by we, I mean pretty-well-educated, middle-to-upper-middle-class folks such as those we often find in our UU pews – we encourage our kids to find not only jobs that pay the bills but we also encourage them to seek out callings that sustain them emotionally and even spiritually while allowing for a reasonable work-life balance. But those jobs aren’t readily available to folks in their 20s.
We also tell young adults not to make the mistakes in relationships that we may have made in this culture where 50% of all marriages end in divorce.
And we encourage young people to keep their options open and avoid being pinned down to any life path too soon, even when we ourselves know that some of those pins are necessarily the things that bring us the most joy and teach us the most about who we are and who we want to be. There’s nothing like a baby or a bad job to bring sudden clarity of purpose to one’s life – but our society, including often our UU society, tries to protect our young people from the downsides to both of those by convincing them to delay experiencing either one of them.
Sociologists debate whether this culture of people in their 20s these days is just that, a culture that will change with the times, or whether we are seeing the formation of a new developmental stage of life. This is not the first time where Americans were suddenly told about a new life stage.
One hundred years ago, in 1904, a psychologist named G. Stanley Hall published a study that reported that new laws keeping children under age sixteen out of the workforce and in school was creating an extended period of dependence, which he labeled “adolescence.”
Hall described this period “as a time of ‘storm and stress,’ filled with emotional upheaval, sorrow, and rebelliousness. He cited a ‘curve of despondency’ that ‘starts at 11, rises steadily and rapidly till 15…then falls steadily till 23’” Hall further described adolescents as sensation- seeking, being unduly influenced by media manipulation, and relying overmuch on peer relationships – traits we take for granted and have come to expect in our adolescents today.
The development of the concept known as “adolescence” led to the creation of services and systems that engaged and supported this age group, services now a century old and deeply ingrained in our consciousnesses as necessary and deserved.
What if such a concept emerges about people in their 20s in the coming decades, where such folks are not seen as mildly slacking off, but are supported for the life stage they are in the middle of? Will the traits of emerging adulthood – like drifting from job to job or place to place or relationship to relationship – also become expected and obvious to us? Will we forget there was ever a time when 30-year-olds were “supposed” to have reached the five milestones of adulthood?
Of course, it took a degree of material comfort to make the identification of the adolescent developmental phase possible. Before we could embrace adolescence, we needed a society that could afford to send its teenagers to school rather than to have them work for their family or in their nation’s factories.
The same is so for the new concept of emerging adulthood. It takes a certain amount of privilege to sustain an emerging adult, does it not? You need parents to fall back on, a society that retains a certain relaxed expectation of its young people, the notion that life should be lived to its fullest over the long term and not eked out day to day in survivalist fashion.
You need for a lot of folks to believe that a whole and sustaining life is not only something possible and something to strive for, but is also worth waiting for.
And we do believe that, those of us who are materially well off in this country. Those of us who are likely to read the New York Times Magazine and also likely to be Unitarian Universalists tend to raise our kids to believe that their lives hold a large amount of both potential and choice, and the best plan may be not to commit to any one path too soon, but to explore possibilities, test the waters, see what’s out there. And when we raise our kids this way, supported and privileged, encouraged and not pressured, this group of emerging adults is what happens.
Whether emerging adulthood is a real developmental phase that has simply been buried under survival pressures of the past, or if it is just a social phenomenon born of a comfortable class of Americans, it is a real trend. Regardless of why, we do have people in their 20s who appear to need support in ways that our society does not always provide.
Furthermore, 20-somethings have particular gifts to offer our community if given the right setting in which to offer them. Today’s 20-somethings are documented optimists, for example . They have a strong sense of right and wrong which can easily be focused, into justice work, for example. And although their attention can be diffuse and scattered, they are incredibly energetic when the moment is right. What would happen if society provided 20-somethings with the opportunities they need to see the world, learn who they are, and test out what interests them, while giving back to the community that supports them?
Which means that supported living and working programs might be just the sort of thing we need for our emerging adults. Most of us have heard of the Peace Corps, where mostly-young people take two years after college to move to a needy country and work with the folks on the ground to improve lives. Imagine if that sort of program was the norm for most of our emerging adults?
Take the program City Year, which has been around since 1988. City Year takes almost 2000 emerging adults each year – ages 17-24 – and trains them to spend the year mentoring at risk youth in inner cities “in exchange for a stipend, health insurance, child care, cellphone service and a five thousand dollar education grant” . The work of these young adults in the City Year program has improved reading and math scores in Chicago, Seattle and Cleveland and reduced suspension rates in Philadelphia. Better yet, how many of these people end up committed to lives helping others? I am sure it is more than a few.
Not to be outdone, Unitarian Universalism has seen the emergence of a few social justice oriented living communities, perfectly tailored to the needs of 20-somethings. For example, the UU Congregation of Queens, New York has converted a house next to their property into an intentional community focused on “working for social justice, participating in regular theological reflection, and learning skills necessary to make substantive change” in the world . The house is in a “safe and interesting neighborhood” next to the church, where each participant gets their own room and a chance to work with people who really need help. Participants need to work a part time job to pay the $500 a month rent while they also engage in the community’s program and theological reflection. The community claims they are the future of Unitarian Universalist leadership.
What a great idea for an emerging adult who’s got a couple of years on their hands!
So, whether you are a 20-something yourself or you parent a 20-something or you employ them or you just know they’re around there somewhere, let us not succumb to hand wringing and teeth gnashing about our young people and the fate of our society. Let us instead broaden our thinking to include the gifts and needs of a particular group who belong with us. Let us imagine a world where we not only support those who need it but we help them to blossom in a way that benefits us all.
So may it be.
The data for this sermon was collected from Henig, R. M. (2010, August 22). The Post Adolescent, Pre-Adult, Not-Quite-Decided Life Stage. The New York Times Magazine, pp. 28-49.
Our Impact. (n.d.). Retrieved October 4, 2010, from City Year: www.cityyear.org
Unitarian Universalist Justice Ministry. (n.d.). Retrieved October 4, 2010, from Fellowship for Intentional Community: http://directory.ic.org