Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

About Those 20-Somethings: Maybe They Are On to Something

Are 20-somethings helping to slay the dragon of singlism?

A few days ago, the New York Times posted online the cover story that will appear in the magazine on Sunday. It immediately shot up to the #1 most emailed slot, and has remained there since. Robin Marantz Henig's story was titled, "What is it about 20-somethings?" and was teased with the question, "Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?"

Early in the story, we learn that:

"Sociologists traditionally define the 'transition to adulthood' as marked by five milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child."

Living Single reader GraceW posted (here) two important questions about that. First, she wondered whether prejudice against singles could be "part of a larger societal prejudice against adults who do not pass all five of the current ‘adulthood milestones.'" She was skeptical about whether those milestones should be considered markers of adulthood, but then that left her with the question, "If those milestones do not accurately identify ‘adults,' what does?"

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Let's start with the second question. A while back, I interviewed the scholar featured in the NY Times story, Jeffrey Arnett, here on this blog. My post was titled, Those Pitied, Mocked, Envied Years Between the Late Teens and Late Twenties: What Are They Really About?

Arnett does not see those five presumed milestones as the key criteria for adulthood in contemporary society. Happily, I asked him exactly what GraceW wants to know. Below are the two most relevant questions from our conversation. I've only included excerpts from the answers, but you can read the complete answers to these and the other questions here.

Bella: Once upon a time, it was easy to say when adulthood began - it was when you got married. One of the findings from your work that I have found most intriguing is that young people today do not use marriage as the criterion for deciding when they have, in fact, become adults. What are the criteria they use now?

Jeff Arnett: Today the criteria are more individualistic and gradual, specifically these 3: accepting responsibility for yourself, making independent decisions, and becoming financially independent.

Bella: This is a blog about singles, so I'm interested in how you see singles in relation to emerging adulthood. On the one hand, you say marriage is not an important criterion for adulthood, but on the other, you use marriage as one of the "adult roles" that mark the end of emerging adulthood and the beginning of young adulthood.

Jeff Arnett: I think young people today reach adulthood according to the 3 subjective, individualistic criteria I described above, then they may or may not marry and become parents. Most people-about 75% of Americans-marry and become parents by age 30, but I think the subjective criteria are more important for marking the end of emerging adulthood and the beginning of young adulthood. As you've described so well, there are still lots of prejudices against singles, especially after age 30, this sniggering sense that they never really grow up, but I don't think that's true.

What I appreciate about Jeff Arnett's criteria for adulthood (accepting responsibility for yourself, making independent decisions, and becoming financially independent) is that they don't demand that we all define responsibility in the same way. There's flexibility in the criterion about independent decisions, too; we don't all have to make the same ones (gee, I guess I'll marry and have kids) to be regarded as adults.

Kenneth Keniston, a psychologist who wrote about criteria for adulthood back in the 60s, also referred to less dogmatic standards than, say, marrying and having a child. As quoted in the Times article, Keniston said that attaining adulthood was once defined as settling on answers to "questions of relationship to the existing society, questions of vocation, questions of social role and lifestyle." Those are big, broad questions that do not come with pre-determined answers. (See also Jill Reynolds' discussion of stage theories and their relevance to the lives of singles.)

I think that GraceW is exactly right in suggesting that our contemporary beliefs about the criteria for adulthood have contributed to singlism. People who are single, regardless of their other accomplishments, are sometimes treated as though they are not fully adult. (Here's an excerpt from Singled Out on the topic.)

In the course of my research and thinking about why people stereotype singles, I developed a "developmental life tasks" model. (I was still writing almost exclusively for academics back then.) According to that model, people in contemporary American society have expectations about how adult life should unfold. For example, by a certain age, you are expected to have married, and then within a certain number of years after that, you are expected to have kids. If you do not accomplish each of the steps, or don't attain them "on time," then you are regarded as not fully adult. That was the model Wendy Morris and I were testing when we compared perceptions of 40-year old singles to perceptions of 25-year old singles. As we predicted, the 40-year olds were judged even more harshly than the 25-year olds.

One of the main points of the NY Times story is that 20-somethings just aren't doing what they are expected to do, by the time they are expected to do it, or in the order that is expected. (Kudos to the reporter for noting that some people never meet the conventional milestones because they "are single or childless by choice.") Another theme of the article was the question of whether the life choices of the 20-somethings should leave us worried or hopeful.

I'm going to allow myself a wisp of hope. If today's 20-somethings refuse to be pressured into marrying by a certain age (or at all), then maybe tomorrow's 20-somethings will be less susceptible, too. The prejudicial belief that you need to be married to be an adult can't withstand too much of that.

[Thanks to Jeanine and GraceW for the heads-up about the NY Times story.]

 

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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