I've been absent for awhile as the press push for Not Quite Adults kicks into high gear. But I'm back... NQA launched itself into adulthood on Dec 28. I was thrilled yesterday to get a shout-out from the New Yorker's Book Bench. I can die a happy woman now. My coauthor and I discussed the book on Leonard Lopate show and I was on the venerable Milt Rosenberg show, Extension 720 on WGN in Chicago. More to come...

If we had one goal with this book it was to change the conversation we have with our kids and them with us. But I fear that our book pales in comparison to the effect the recession will have (has had) on this conversation. The hard economic times and the truly bleak job market for young adults has done more than we could have ever managed with our small book to make people realize that this generation is facing a vastly different world than any of us older folks did.

The unemployment rate for young people under age 25 is a whopping 15.9%--and rising. It's been going up since October while the national rate has fallen slightly. For men of this age, it's a stunning 18.2%. It gets a little better the older you are, but not much. For those age 25-34, 10.4% are out of work.

Being out of work, or in the case of young people, unable to find that first job makes it hard to plan for a future. For us Americans, jobs define us. They support us. They make everything else run smoothly.

Young adults are stalled. Job fairs are packed. The pickings are slim and the competition is tight. One young woman told us in our interviews for the Generation R book that she was putting off moving in with her boyfriend because she didn't want to be a burden to him--she has college debt and no solid job leads. I'm sure many more young people are thinking the same thing. Although some economists say the economy is lifting, I think they need to get out on the street more often. It certainly isn't lifting for these young people.

We've been here before of course. Recessions in the early 1980s were bad, and of course there's the Great Depression. It's interesting that the trends in living at home longer began to rise during the 1980s recession. In fact, about the same share of young adults aged 18-24 were living at home in 1982-3 as are doing so now. What's different now, however, is how many 25-34 year olds are living at home--up about 50% since the 1980s. In the Depression, we also saw many more young people living at home. Nearly 70% of young white men age 20 were living at home in 1939, while about 30% were still living at home by age 25. Marriage rates also dropped.

Economists worry that this recession will not only last longer, but its reverberations will be felt for many years to come. We're just not as prepared to bounce back as we were before. So many more people have been out of work for more than a year this time around. Being out of the workforce that long really sets you back. On top of that, our education ranking is dismal. We're just not well-positioned to rally as quickly or as convincingly as we once were.

A new report by researchers at Rutgers on the recession finds a deep vein of pessimism running through our collective psyche right now. The report's title says it all: "The Shattered American Dream: Unemployed Workers Lose Ground, Hope, and Faith in Their Futures."

One of the authors told Bob Herbert in the New York Times that he was struck by how pessimistic some respondents have become, "not just about their own situation but about the nation's future. 'They're losing the idea that if you are determined and work hard, you can get ahead,' Van Horn said. 'They don't think they or their children are going to fare particularly well.'"

Frank Rich in Sunday's Times added another layer to this story. In "Who Killed the Disneyland Dream," he takes us along on a trip to Disneyland that the Barstows--a typical can-do family in the 1950s-- took after winning a slogan contest for 3M's Scotch Tape.

The difference between then and now is palpable. While the Barstows marveled at the innovations before them in Disneyland, our government's R&D budget is slashed. Their optimism in America and their ability carve out a simple, but comfortable life in the suburbs sustained them. They also were comforted by the fact that most Americans were like them--middle class. (Not all mind you--black Americans were still at the back of the bus.) But there was not the huge divide between the wealthy and the rest of us. There was also no striving for out-of-reach material goods like huge houses and multiple cars that occurs when you try to keep up to the Joneses when the Joneses are rich and setting the bar so high (Robert Frank talks more about this in his many books).

And it is this difference--this changed world, this rise of a high-stakes competitive "game" that demands a resume in high school, this demise of employers who believed that what was good for their workers was good for their bottom line, and the rise of a winner-take-all society--that we try to capture in NQA. For those still trying to play by the old rules, trying to bolt out the door to a fast adulthood, it is this changed game that puts them on a high-risk collision course between their aspirations and their reality.

It is also this changed world that young adults find themselves inheriting. Yet unlike the Barstows, their shot at the middle class has withered.

As Rich puts it:

How many middle-class Americans now believe that the sky is the limit if they work hard enough? How many trust capitalism to give them a fair shake? Middle-class income started to flatten in the 1970s and has stagnated ever since. While 3M has continued to prosper, many other companies that actually make things (and at times innovative things) have been devalued, looted or destroyed by a financial industry whose biggest innovation in 20 years, in the verdict of the former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, has been the cash machine.

It's a measure of how rapidly our economic order has shifted that nearly a quarter of the 400 wealthiest people in America on this year's Forbes list make their fortunes from financial services, more than three times as many as in the first Forbes 400 in 1982. Many of America's best young minds now invent derivatives, not Disneylands, because that's where the action has been, and still is, two years after the crash. In 2010, our system incentivizes high-stakes gambling - "this business of securitizing things that didn't even exist in the first place," as Calvin Trillin memorably wrote last year - rather than the rebooting and rebuilding of America.

In last week's exultant preholiday press conference, Obama called for a "thriving, booming middle class, where everybody's got a shot at the American dream." But it will take much more than rhetorical Scotch tape to bring that back. The Barstows of 1956 could not have fathomed the outrageous gap between this country's upper class and the rest of us. America can't move forward until we once again believe, as they did, that everyone can enter Frontierland if they try hard enough, and that no one will be denied a dream because a private party has rented out Tomorrowland.

It is this new order that we try to capture in NQA. It is this narrowing of the possibilities, the questioning of the fair shake--along with many other equally fundamental changes--that have affected the path to adulthood. And because the stakes are higher, and because young people need to position themselves so much more carefully if they are to compete, their embrace of "adulthood" is going to take time.

We no longer live in the world that allowed a fast start. Young people need more education (which comes with a high price-tag), they need more credentials, they must be more strategic in that first job choice. In turn, they should hold off on children and marriage until they're ready and able to commit to a family. All this was true before the recession, and it's even more critical now. That's why we hope to have a different conversation than the one we hear so frequently--"kids are coddled," or "kick them out and let them grow up." A slower path to adulthood is a better path because it ensures a more secure future in this increasingly unstable, unpredictable world.


About the Author

Barbara Ray

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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