An article published in the August 22, 2010 edition of the New York Times Sunday Magazine recently caught my attention for its title: “What Is It About 20-Somethings?”
The article discussed the “changing timetable of adulthood,” as it can be observed in a move from five traditional landmarks in the “transition to adulthood” – including finishing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child – to the development of a new, distinct stage in life, defined by psychology professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett as “emerging adulthood.” According to this professor, changing cultural, social and economic factors have led to the creation of this previously unrecognized stage, much in the same way that the stage of adolescence was “created” in the early 20th century. We 20-somethings are staying in school increasingly longer, only to be faced with a shrinking job market and fewer opportunities when we finally do graduate; we no longer feel the need to get married right away because stigmas surrounding premarital sex, co-habitation and birth control have largely fallen away; and we – specifically we women – have begun to prioritize our careers over beginning a family, thanks also to the increasing access to assisted reproductive technology, which gives us the chance to be mothers, even if we want to be career-women first.
It is always fascinating to read about something that directly relates to who you are, and this topic in particular is so immediate and so complex; it is a perfect catalyst for the endless (and rather narcissistic) contemplation and self-searching that I think defines this age.
What age is that, again? 25, soon to be 26. An age not so tumultuous as say, 22, when you are for all practical purposes thrown into adulthood and expected to act accordingly without even the slightest inkling of what being an adult means, yet still 4-5 years short of 30, thus leaving plenty of time for significant experimentation and upheaval before crossing what to me appears to be the true threshold of adulthood. I am still by every definition a 20-something.
One of the discussions that struck me the most about this article was Arnett’s description of what characterizes “emerging adulthood,” specifically the observation that, regardless of our economic or social backgrounds, we are unendingly optimistic: 96% of us are “very sure that someday we will get to where we want to be in our lives.” “The dreary, dead-end jobs, the bitter divorces, the disappointing and disrespectful children . . . none of them imagine that this is what the future holds for them,” Arnett writes.
He’s right, of course. How many of us in our twenties really believe that our lives will turn out poorly? Yet, statistically speaking, at the very least all of us are bound to experience something terrible during our time on this earth, and perhaps some of us are destined to irreparably fail in one or more areas of our lives. Despite this, it seems clear (and I think Arnett would agree with me) that there’s nothing wrong with this optimism. Every decision we make at this age, every attempt at something new, every experiment (physical, professional, personal or otherwise), every small accomplishment leading us toward something bigger is fueled by our hope and by our conviction that for us nothing less than personal greatness will be achieved; we will all become the best versions of ourselves. Misguided or not, I think it’s actually quite beautiful.
It is with these sentiments in mind that I begin to record my thoughts. Perhaps in attempting to observe and document my own “emerging adulthood” I will be better able to control my own personal development into something…well, something great, I hope…or is that just my 20-something naiveté rearing it’s ugly head?