Adulthood: What's the Rush?

The truth about 21st century 20-somethings.

A new generation of "hippies" seeking meaning beyond the Mall

"Just start something" could be the tagline of this generation.

In interviewing young people, it strikes me that in some ways, this generation is a return to the hippie era. Among a select group of mostly college-graduates from more affluent, educated families, there is decided a turn away from consumerism and toward a more do-it-yourself ethos, where leaving a small footprint is the goal.

Like the hippies before them, this most recent crop of 20-somethings is shunning the crass commercialism that (rightly or wrongly) defined the generation (and the nation) before them--Generation X. Although GenX has is most often thought of as the generation of cynics and ironists, they also came of age amid a riotous commercialism and easy affluence (if only on paper). They knew how to spend money. It was during their 20s that we began to hear tales of wild spending and burdensome credit-card debt. Marketing thoroughly filtered into their lives in new and insidious ways (to wit: stealth marketing campaigns with leggy blondes who "spontaneously" order a Skye or Grey Goose vodka and gush about it for all to hear--all the while on the payroll of Skye or Grey Goose. Homes were getting bigger, and consumption was ever more conspicuous.  

The most current generation-- Millenials -- is, like their Birkenstock-wearing forebearers, seeking a simpler life with more meaning than can be found at the mall. They are seeking a connection in their work, and in their nonwork lives. In their nonwork lives this is exemplified by a quest for smaller, purer production, and an embrace of individualism and the spirit of the garage tinkerer. They are embracing handmade crafts, small-batch beers, artisanal cheesemaking, farm-to-table food-- a DIY ethos that captures perhaps the rejection and retreat from overly slick, overproduced mass marketing of Miller, Dole, and Kraft Foods. They are flocking to Maker's Faires, where tinkerers and inventors and innovators share their creations. 

In their work lives, they are embracing also a generous spirit of volunteerism and giving back. Organizations like Teach for America are seeing record numbers of applications (even before the Recession), and many more Millennials are seeking work in the nonprofit world than before, not to mention the thousands serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.

They are also fearless in their belief that they can change, maybe not the world, but at least their own course. They are doing this through entrepreneurship or, as one young woman told her peers: "just start something. Take a chance and start something new." And of course, they have an entirely new and powerful set of tools to "just do something" with--social media, the internet, and digital tools. With a strong belief in themselves, this group of young adults is beginning to question the status quo, on anything from the value of a four-year degree to the proscribed route through adulthood. 

But this movement is not universal. In many respects, it is a story of two Americas. As in the 1960s and 1970s, not everyone was donning tye-dye and putting flowers in their hair. There was a large population--a majority most likely-- who had nothing to do with the hippies. They went to work, married, had kids, started lives, and took the more traditional path, albeit with a few new twists. The same is true today.

The majority of young people are not in the idealists' camp. They are not feeling liberated to seek alternatives and "just start something." They instead are feeling stuck, unable to get started in life because they can't find a job, they may have stumbled at some point along the way, or they lack the connections and cultivation that the elite peers are privy to. The alternatives are much narrower today: fewer clear routes through a trade or technical school, fewer well-paying jobs for "average" kids, fewer options if you're not "college material." 

But just as it was in the 1960s and 1970s, the media has picked up the scent of the hippies and the counterculture movement, even though they remain a minority of young adults. The hippies, too, were the elite kids in many ways. They were more often than not on college campuses, and not in the jungles of Vietnam. Yet somehow they came to define the generation. 

What this narrow focus risks, however, is an assumption--an assumption that all young adults are engaged and engaging, self-confident and impressive, and on their way to an extraordinary run of it. There of course are those stellar examples. But they are not a majority.

When I talk to these impressive young people, I'm always struck by their backgrounds: the child of two academics; the child of parents in the nonprofit world; the child of parents in high posts in government. They have had all the benefits of that position and are, by no fault of their own, looking at the world from that perch. They are circulating within a bubble of similar young people, and rarely stop and think that the majority of their peers are not as fortunate.  One young woman, an NYU grad interviewing me about alternative to a four-year degree, was stumped. She couldn't find anyone who worked as an EMT or as a paralegal, she told me. She couldn't find them because her circle was so circumscribed, a group of the best and the brightest. 

It's heartening to see this quest for meaning in life, this return to a simpler, more genuine approach to consumption, and a sense of limitless possibility. But somehow we have to make that approach a possibility and a reality for many, many more in this generation as well. Not everyone can be a go-getter or a game-changer. And not everyone wants to be. But young people should at least have a fair shot.  

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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