Ten years ago, a 25-year-old without a stable job and still living with parents would have been called a “slacker.” A decade later, the term is about as outdated as flannel shirts and grunge music. Today, 20-somethings who haven’t accepted grown-up roles are “emerging adults” attempting to find a path from adolescence to adulthood.
Social scientists are starting to think this isn’t a temporary Generation X phenomenon, but a new stage of human development. Rather than a reaction to the excesses of their parents in the 1980s, Generation X might be better understood as the first generation to experience emerging adulthood, reacting more to changing global economics than mere parental rebellion.
Now a whole new generation is entering their 20s and following a similar trajectory. Traditional milestones of adulthood – leaving home, finding financial stability, getting married and having children – are not achieved until they are almost 30, and growing evidence suggests economics play a major role.
Historically, human development trends are linked to economic changes. The idea of adolescence emerged a century ago after the U.S. economic base shifted from agriculture to industry. Teenagers with the skills to work on a farm lacked the education required for factory jobs. As high school became a necessity, the teenage years turned into a transition period to adulthood rather than a time for adulthood itself.
Today, the American economy and adult transitions are undergoing a similar transformation. The economic base has shifted from industry to technology and services. Eighteen-year-olds with a high school diploma lack the education required for the new economy, making college a necessity. The 20s are emerging as a new second phase of adolescence that further delays adulthood.
While other countries take on the manufacturing jobs that once provided a 22-year-old American with a steady income, the United States is seeing the rise of what urban theorist Richard Florida calls a “creative class” of workers. In his 2002 bestseller, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” Florida finds these workers in diverse industries that require more extensive education such as publishing, software development and architecture.
As a result, young people commonly spend their early and mid-20s still in the classroom, learning the cognitive skills demanded by creative-class jobs.
Senior Lisa Maurice is typical of young adults aspiring to the creative class.
“It doesn’t seem like you can do much any more with just a bachelor’s degree,” said Maurice, who plans to get a Master’s degree in psychology. “I feel pressure to get a job, get some money in my name and get into graduate school.”
The financial impact of higher
Although the new economy requires higher education, college has paradoxically become such a financial burden that many graduates simply cannot afford to be adults.
The current generation is the first to bear the burden of college costs primarily through loans rather than scholarships and grants. Education lender Sallie Mae found the average college student graduated with $18,900 in student loans in 2002, compared to $9,000 ten years earlier. Additionally, college tuition went up an average of 38 percent in the 1990s.
At GW, one of the most expensive universities in the nation, students are feeling the financial pressure.
“I have $15,000 in loans to pay off,” said senior Stacy Blake. “And I want to work in nonprofit, so I’m kind of screwed.”
The complexities of financial aid formulas add to the stress.
“(The government and university) gives you some money, but not enough, so you have to work. But if you don’t take enough classes, they take away your aid. It’s a catch-22,” said Maurice. “There are so many people out there who just don’t get enough financial aid. And it’s just frustrating. It’s not their fault.”
In addition to loan debt, the strain of college tuition leaves emerging adults vulnerable to credit card abuse. According to Demos, a policy think tank, credit card debt among 18 to 24-year-olds more than doubled between 1992 and 2001.
“College students are definitely gold mines for credit card companies,” said junior Omkar Kulkarni. “They give us high (spending limits) because they know we can’t budget and our parents will pay it off.”
Indeed, parents are increasingly giving financial support to their children long after adolescence. After spending $170,000 during a child’s first 18 years, average American parents continue to spend another $38,000 on their child by the time he or she is 34, according to the Network on Transitions to Adulthood.
The economic realities of emerging adulthood reveal that a college degree is not an immediate gateway to a higher-paying job. While numerous studies show college graduates enjoy long-term income benefits, most are besieged by debt and financial peril in the short term.
A striking example of this came in March 2004, when the number of unemployed college graduates topped the number of unemployed high school dropouts for the first time.
While middle-class parents often rescue their children from drowning in debt, life is very different for emerging adults whose education ended at high school graduation.
Developmental psychologist Jeffrey Arnett explained the problem in his 2004 book, “Emerging Adulthood.”
“As the economies of urban areas declined, so did the quality of the public schools, leaving children ill-prepared for going on to college. Thus, in emerging adulthood many find themselves … in low-paying, unpromising (jobs),” he wrote.
From this lowest rung of the economic ladder, the U.S. shift away from industry only exacerbates their strife by putting high-paying jobs even further out of reach.
The income gap for young males is greater today than it was in 1975, according to University of Michigan professor Sheldon Danziger. His research found average incomes are rising for young men with a college or graduate degree but falling for those with only a high school diploma or even some college.
Emerging adults from both lower and middle class backgrounds face an economic dilemma: go to college and suffer from crippling debt or immediately enter the workforce and face a lifetime of lower earnings.
Despite those left behind in America, the emerging-adult phase is still an exclusively affluent phenomenon. It is found only in the world’s wealthiest nations like Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. However, Dr. Arnett thinks globalization will soon bring the phase to developing countries.
“Emerging adulthood is likely to become more pervasive in the decades to come,” Arnett wrote. “It seems possible that by the end of the 21st Century emerging adulthood will be a normative period for young people worldwide.”
Although “slackers” are now early ’90s relics, their younger counterparts continue to take the long road to adulthood.
Lisa Maurice plans on taking a year off after college to save money for graduate school, eventually hoping to find her ideal creative class job in the psychology field. Almost 21 years old, she sees adulthood as still many years away and doesn’t expect to be financially stable for quite some time.
“I’ll probably be in massive debt (after graduate school),” she said. “But I take comfort in knowing I’m not alone.”
This article appeared in the March 7, 2005 issue of the Hatchet.