Cusp

How it feels to be on the brink of a life passage, from youth to middle age to death.

The Long & Winding Road to Adulthood

Parents worrying about their twentysomething kids is nothing new.

Anyone who thinks Millennials have a patent on aimlessness should meet my friend Mitch. After he graduated from Cornell in 1973 (the same year I did), Mitch lived in an ashram-like commune on a farm near Ithaca, New York, putting his life savings into a big pot of money for the whole collective to use. For three years he worked in the commune-owned bakery and practiced yoga in his off hours, and then moved to California with a woman he met there. That's around the time I might have started really worrying if I were Mitch’s mother. (I worried a little anyway.) Leaving the commune, which had taken all of his $1,500 savings, meant leaving without a cent.

I rarely saw Mitch during this stretch. I was off living my own more traditional life, having married one of Mitch’s closest friends, my college sweetheart Jeff, the month after we graduated. At our wedding, Mitch had gotten dressed up in a suit and polka-dot bow tie, his curly red hair in disarray. In those days he was experimenting with Aldous Huxley’s visual exercises, which were supposed to liberate him from wearing glasses. But Mitch was very nearsighted, and he wandered into the wrong reception, like Mr. Magoo, and was already drinking a cocktail before he realized he was among strangers.

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The rest of Mitch’s twenties were just as scattered. He and his girlfriend moved to Ojai, California, where he worked at a natural foods restaurant and cooked macrobiotic dinners for rich hippies. After less than a year, he broke up with the girlfriend and moved back to Ithaca, where he became part of another communal enterprise, Moosewood Restaurant. He met Martha, a Cornell librarian who was a storyteller in her spare time. Soon Mitch and Martha were a couple, and they told stories together for fun. When Mitch was 32, he and Martha married, and they both quit their day jobs and began professional storytelling in earnest. Mitch had come through his twenties and out the other side – and today he still lives in Ithaca, is still married to Martha, and still makes his livelihood with her telling folk tales. 

Mitch’s story, which brings to mind the stories of so many of today’s twenty-somethings, is just one example of how the uncertainty and experimentation of the twenties is nothing new. I’ve got plenty more examples sitting on my bookshelf right now. One is from a book called Grown-Ups: A Generation in Search of Adulthood. It's about Baby Boomers when we were young, but it reads like it could have been written yesterday. The author, Cheryl Merser, was in her thirties when she wrote that for her fellow Boomers, “the obvious trappings of growing up – identities, careers, marriage, children, houses, Pontiacs . . . are neither obvious nor automatic, the way they seemed to be for my parents and other adults I knew when I was growing up." Her peers had chosen a slower pace toward adulthood, she wrote. "A lot of us settle into careers, families, or houses later than men and women did a generation ago, or not at all. But why? And how does this affect the way we define adulthood?"

The media hype about her generation, Merser wrote, was that "we don’t measure up [and are] in general spoiled, narcissistic yuppies who refuse to face up to the real responsibilities of adulthood.”

Cheryl Merser was born in 1951, two years before I was. Which means that her “we” included Mitch and me: Baby Boomers who at the time were in our twenties and thirties. The same goes for books like The Postponed Generation (pub date 1986) and The Over-Educated American (1976). The postponed, over-educated, under-employed generation these books are talking about, the grown-ups in search of adulthood – that was us, the Baby Boom.

And it’s not just books and headlines that have stayed much the same in the past thirty years. Even some of the objective markers that seem to be unique to Millennials weren’t all that different for Baby Boomers. Take those notorious laggards who refuse to launch, opting instead to live rent-free, chore-free, and job-free in their parents' basements. It’s true that there has been an increase in the percent of young people living with their parents in comparison to thirty years ago, but it's less than you might think.

In 1980, according to the U.S. Census, 11 percent of 25- to 34-year-old men were still living with their parents or other relatives. In 2008, at the start of the recession, that figure was 20 percent -- an increase, but still a distinct minority. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, the percent still living at home in 2008 was much   higher--57 percent for men and 49 percent for women. But hidden in that high proportion were college students who might have spent most of their time living on their own, only returning to their childhood bedrooms for school breaks but with no better response to offer when asked for a "permanent address." Even with that caveat, 18- to 24-year-olds were living with their parents at only a slightly higher level in 2008 than in 1980, when the figures were 54 percent for men, 43 percent for women. And most of that increase had happened between 1980 and 1990 (that is, among people born between 1956 and 1972) -- which means the rate for adults under 24 living with their parents has been generally stable for the past twenty years.

Of course, if it’s your 24-year-old son who’s sleeping down the hall again, even those relatively small figures can feel awfully significant. For this age range as a whole, though, the rise has been slight enough that some recent headlines– Time magazine's cover line "They Just Won't Grow Up" comes to mind – seem a bit hyperbolic.

Many of the Baby Boomers currently freaking out about their twenty-something children living in the basement, or going back to school instead of getting a paying job, or sleeping around instead of marrying off, had similar, and similarly traumatic, twenties of their own. (The job crunch has affected a lot of things, but not everything.) Almost every complaint you’re hearing about Millennials has been made, sometimes even verbatim, about Baby Boomers—maybe even about the very person now doing the complaining. This realization can be comforting. The broke, aimless vegan baker of today could end up like Mitch: storyteller, husband, brother, uncle, homeowner, tennis player, runner, biker, traveler, and just about the happiest sixty-something I know.

from Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck? by Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig, Hudson Street Press, Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2012 by Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig.

Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?

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