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Verhaagen's "Understanding Young Adults Who Get Stuck"

Social media, the Internet, and "reality" TV's effect on millennials.

Dollar Photo
Source: Dollar Photo

I would like to share some impressions of a highly relevant and informative talk entitled, “Understanding Young Adults Who Get Stuck,” that was recently given by Dr. David Verhaagen at the Ben Franklin Institute’s “Failure to Launch” Summit in Tempe, Ariz.

His sensitive and well-documented observations supported what we at Optimum Performance Institute know to be true: From a developmental/psychological perspective, the years between ages 18 and 28 represent a new and unique stage of development with their own 21st century characteristics and challenges.

Each generation seems to have its own sociologic characteristics, Dr. Verhaagen said. The 1970s society had its “Latchkey Kids” whereas today we live in a culture of “Helicopter Parents,” the difference being the degree of parental involvement. Parents were seemingly absent in the 1970s but often are too involved today — hovering extremely close over their emerging adults, often micromanaging every aspect of their lives, unintentionally limiting their ability to emerge as independent, while the helicoptered children see themselves as more hardworking than ever before, even if parents fail to see them that way.

Dr. Verhaagen shared a recent study that reported 71% of young adults view themselves as entitled and selfish; 1 out of 4 young adults still live at home and 3 out of 4 are still financially supported by their parents, all this coming from a generation that will, for the first time in U.S. history, not be able to surpass their parents in terms of financial earnings.

They are impacted by economic factors unique to these times including the limited availability of employment opportunities to support the lifestyle they have been accustomed to living. Even if they complete the expectations set forth for them (ie, completing college, working hard in school), they still may not get a job that can allow them to function relatively comfortably and independently.

The Internet and Information Age

Dr. Verhaagen provided an interesting and elegant formulation for other elements impacting a young adult’s reality today such as the significance and effect of the internet with its ease of access due to a significant decrease in the cost of data usage.

Today, he said, at least 55% of young adults use technology such as Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and YouTube to facilitate self-expression, thereby communicating in a rather one-dimensional manner with much nonverbal communication missing. The resulting interaction may help young adults feel less anxious since they don’t have to look each other in the eye, but it can serve to isolate and result in feelings of despair and loneliness. Real, face-to-face communication is far more complex, spontaneous and intuitive.

Many young adults today prefer to be observers rather than participants, he said. They are not fully present in the moment using as an example those who seem keener to record events rather than being present and experiencing the complexity of the reality. Observing rather than participating can result in a lack of connectedness to their complex, intuitive and feeling part, insulating them from their creative self resulting in difficulties with interpersonal effectiveness. Many young adults are aware of some of the consequences of this estrangement from the creative self, he said, such as an inability to have intimate and fulfilling relationships, and see their culture as one that promotes narcissism and demonstrates less empathy.

Dr. Verhaagen said 72% of young adults feel “less authentic” with a continuing need to seek external connectedness (90% of them check their cell phones every hour, he said). This process of constantly seeking validation may result in a sense of internal “vagueness,” making it harder to identify any true interests or passions because of separation fears and insufficient experience in developing a resiliency to the realities of life. The end result is a young adult frightened by the process of becoming self-sufficient which, like life itself, they know requires years of perseverance with no guarantees.

Additionally, it seems young adults may have an unconscious fear of complex intimacy which requires a sense of being emotionally present and vulnerable. This level of basic trust is essential for creating a foundation of mutually respectful, loving and validating relationships and for having contact with the creative, true self and the source of true centeredness.

Reality TV

Dr. Verhaagen spoke about the creation and immense success of reality television shows available to this generation and explained how it relates to their culture. In 2000, for instance, there were only 4 reality TV shows on the air; in 2013, this number rose to a whopping 320! Many young adults feel left out of this exaggerated and/or idealized digital reality, which lacks the complexity of experiential life lived in the moment. Reality TV shows with its digital media perceptions of reality create an unconscious blurring of boundaries between fantasy and reality. The reality TV culture appears to support relationships that are self-promoting rather than “other” centered.

Trauma in the World and Media

For many young adults today, the times and culture seem to reinforce the perception that it's a very scary world. Dr. Verhaagen listed some of the traumatic events that this generation of young adults experienced when they were children:

8-10 Years Old – Iraqi war, numerous other wars, killing, violence
9 Years Old – 9/11 Terror Attacks
13 Years Old – Hurricane Katrina
16 Years Old – Stock market’s severe decline
20 Years Old and beyond – Sandy Hook, Ferguson and San Bernardino shootings and more.

Tragedies are closer to home, today, a real part of each young adult’s daily experiences, he said.

The OPI Perception and Experience

As my wife and I drove through the city of San Bernardino, California, two days ago, I realized that the real issue is how skillfully we develop the ability to cope in this world of greater uncertainties. Do we become more rigid and isolated? Or do we learn to react in a more skillful manner, being present and knowing when to advance, when to stay and when to retreat.

I think it is important for young adults today to become aware of all elements of our culture and, without judgment, see its assets and deficits in order to begin the process of creating opportunities for growth which is the basic developmental objectives for all young adults and their families.

They may see themselves as doing the norm and parents may see them as doing nothing and both may be right! We must create common ground for understanding. This is possible when we appreciate others with less judgment and more sensitivity to the stress our perceptions causes all parties.

It is my belief that there is a growing awareness in this generation that success cannot be measured exclusively in monetary terms. This is a creative and positive response to the reality young adults are facing, with the hope they can develop and demonstrate a greater freedom from that attachment to success in terms of dollars.

This belief is very much embraced by the OPI/Roanne programs, by way of our experiential and developmental approaches towards transformation and growth. We help our young adult participants find passion, express it joyously and share it, breaking the internal and external layers of judgment that insulate our young adults from their Creative Selves, or, that part of themselves that allows them to create and experience more joyous and secure attachments with others and the world.

Optimum Performance Institute
Source: Optimum Performance Institute

Robert Fischer, M.D.
Co-Founder /Executive Director
Optimum Performance Institute / Roanne Program
Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, UCLA, School Of Medicine
Dept. Of Psychoneuroimmunology, Mindful Awareness Research Center |

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