Adulthood: What's the Rush?

The truth about 21st century 20-somethings.

Is this generation as resilient as were children of the Great Depression?

Children of the Depression bounced back. Will this generation?

After a too-long hiatus from this blog, I'm back. No excuses, except that life intervened, as it always tends to do.In the interim, my book came out (Not Quite Adults), which I'm very excited about. We're into a third printing, so thank you readers!

As we were wrapping up the research and interviews on NQA, however, the banks collapsed, the housing crisis hit, and the recession set in. In other words, the world flipped upside down. Newly minted college grads were at the forefront of the blowback: unemployment was hovering at 14% for 18-24 year olds, and the promised jobs that a college degree was supposed to guarantee were nowhere to be found. It was time to head back into the field and find out how they were coping.

I've just recently returned in fact from Philadelphia, where we're interviewing 150 young adults about how the recession has affected them. The 20-somethings are all four years out of high school, and ran smack into the recession. I spent the week shadowing two young people, Kim and Dustin. I've also been reading the transcripts for the 60+ interviews we done so far. If I could sum it up in three words, I'd say this generation is bruised but optimistic. 

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The vast majority are living back home while they search for work. The vast majority we've talked to so far also have BAs. This is not at all what they expected. "It's like being back in high school," they lament. "I'm in a prolonged indian summer of adolescence and I don't like it," said another. "I feel stuck."

Many, groomed as they were to succeed and believe in themselves, are finding themselves on unfamiliar ground.  Adversity is not in their vocabularly. They grew up amid affluence (even if that affluence was on paper only). And as biography meets history, it remains to be seen how they will cope.

A classic study of children of the Depression by Glen Elder found that they were resilient and bounced back from the hardship later in life. As he put it:

To an unexpected degree, these children of the Great Depression followed a trajectory of resilience into the middle years of life. They were doing better than expected from the perspective of their social origins.

Elder attributes this rebound to military service, which opens vistas and offers skills training, the GI bill, and the supports from marriage. Only military service is a constant today, as the GI bill is no more and marriage is delayed well into the late 20s and early 30s for many. Another strike against the potential resilience of this current generation is where they started from. As my sociologist friend Maria put it, that Great Depression generation moved from hardship to the later affluence of the 1940s and 1950s. This current generation is doing the reverse. They are moving from affluence to adversity.  And another burden: unlike the men and women of the Great Depression, with its GI bill, many young adults today (and their families) are saddled with debt from college loans even before they get started. I discuss one such heart-breaking story here.

On the other hand, there's an interesting side story that is emerging: it's a hint of relief that the mad consumption era is at an end. As one young woman put it,

The best thing about it is that people will find things to do that don't cost as much. And like, you'll realize that other things are much more valuable than money and ...you'll find things that you like better. So there's still good things from this.

Time will tell how this generation rebounds (if it rebounds) from the most enduring recession since "the big one." As one economist told me last week, this recession is different from the majority of those before because it is going to be a long, slow recovery. The last major recession of this magnitude in the 1980s saw a quick and steep rebound. Currents estimates are it's going to take at least six years to recover from this one. It's going to take a lot of can-do optimism to weather this storm I'm afraid.

 

 

Barbara Ray is the coauthor of Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood and Why It's Good for All of Us (Delacorte, Jan. 2011).

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