“Extended Adolescence” is Over-Rated

A number of years ago in my undergraduate program I took a course on the Aging Family. What made the course so interesting was the intersection of what I was learning with circumstances in my own life: as I read articles and books about older sibling relationships, death and dying, and how families manage elder care, my own grandmother became ill and ended up in extended care. So what might otherwise have been rather abstract and removed learning instead became really meaningful as I watched it play out in my own family.

I find myself in the same situation today. As my studies focus on career planning and school-to-work transitions, I am at the same time watching my own kids – all young adults now – try to to get their heads wrapped around some sort of a life plan [1]. Poor kids. They are focused on their own lives and situations, but they might feel better if they understood how caught up they are in social trends that have prompted us to coin a new life stage: “Extended Adolescence” [2].

Extended Adolescence is a term coined about ten years ago to describe 20-somethings who didn’t seem to be engaged in, or headed toward the traditional markers of adulthood: career ambitions, marriage, children, and buying a home. The basic debate in this area is what we might call “material” versus “cultural-symbolic” explanations for this new life stage. Which side of the fence you lean on largely determines whether you are pessimistic or optimistic about where the whole EA thing is heading.

The “material” argument says this: Extended Adolescence is the product of a really crappy economic outlook for young people:

  • Home ownership of any sort is out of reach, for most, until at least one’s thirties, and often requires parents’ financial assistance.
  • Children have become an expensive “luxury” and workplaces still don’t accommodate families very well. This is particularly to the detriment of women.
  • Post-secondary education is necessary, expensive, and time consuming, resulting in growing student loan debt.
  • “Good” jobs that provide secure full-time work, benefits, and growth opportunities are scarce, relative to work that is part-time, temporary, low-paying, or otherwise insecure.

There is, in fact, some pretty solid evidence to back up the contention that “extended adolescence” is a euphemistic way of saying that kids can’t grow up because economically, the deck is stacked against them [3].

The cultural-symbolic argument takes a more optimistic stance, and kind of goes like this: Extended Adolescence is a result of more flexibility and openness in our society. It says young adults don’t assume traditional adult roles as often because they now have the choice to do otherwise. So we’ve reached this more enlightened state where we are not restricted by social norms that tell us what do with our lives, when. You can be gay or straight, have kids whenever you want, not have kids, adopt kids, have a career, have a McJob, stay in school forever, or travel the world working at organic farms for room and board. Whatever works for you! Sounds good, huh? Extended Adolescence, in theory, recognizes and legitimizes a life stage devoted to the exploration needed to find one’s authentic self [4].

The thing is I don’t buy it, or at least not all of it. I have a couple of reasons for this. First, I agree with Cote and Brynner (see the footnote above) that joys of self-exploration are more apt to fall upon kids that come from families with money. The lack of social connectivity that is celebrated in a positive view of Extended Adolescence is a big fat deficit for the poor and the socially marginalized. In fact, traditional kinship ties play a very important role in poor families for economic survival [5].

The other reason I don’t buy into an unblemished view of Extended Adolescence is because I’ve met too many young adults who are confused, lost, and just lacking feelings of purpose or belonging. This is the stuff of anomie – a sense of diconnectedness, even meaninglessness, when the social world is too fragmented to offer any sense of identity to its members. So if we want to look at increased rates of adolescent suicide, adolescent mental illness, and substance abuse and… well I’m no raving social conservative, but fans of Extended Adolescence like Arnett may be too quick to toss out social institutions and norms. Sure they’re restrictive, and sometimes boring. But they also connect us to others in ways that, while not always fun, nonetheless have richness and continuity, and reflect something back to us about who we are, and who we should aspire to be.

So for my own personal collection of kids, “emerging adults,” “kidults,” or what have you, I do wish all sorts of amazing, interesting and diverse life experiences. I do want them to “find themselves,” and gain a sense of authenticity. But I also wish for them a world that creates spaces for young adults to work, love, and contribute in meaningful communities and settings. And they need both economic opportunity and at least some basic social norms and supports to ground their futures upon. Authenticity doesn’t just spring up from within; it’s tied, for better or worse, into how we connect to the world around us. Figuring that one out is the best part, and the toughest part of being a Grown Up, no?

Notes and References

[1] I’d give them advice because I *study* this stuff, for Pete’s sake. But I’m a Mom and therefore am not sought generally sought out for this. I am, however, sought out for trips to the mall.

[2] Extended Adolescence might not be the best descriptor. It implies a kind of moral failure on the part of youth: active, potato chip eating, vodka swilling, basement dwelling avoidance of adult responsibilities. And some do interpret it thus. We could call it the “kids these days” argument. The short of it is this: kids these days are self-centered, even narcissistic. They aren’t committed to anything or anyone. They aren’t interested in contributing to society, or much of anything else past the next weekend, or the next trip to Cabo. This is a gross generalization, of course, but is is one opinion “out there.” See The Narcissism Epidemic and learn the words to “I am Special” sung to the tune of Frere Jacques.

[3] More references for geeks who want ‘em! OECD (2009, September). Tacking the jobs crisis: Helping youth to get a firm hold in the labour market. Retrieved March 12, 2010 from http://bx.businessweek.com/unemployment/view?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.oecd.org%2Fdataoec. Ainley, P. & Allen, M. (2010). Lost Generation? New Strategies for Youth and Education. London: Continuum. Cote, J., & Bynner, J. (2008). Changes in the transition to adulthood in the UK and Canada: the role of structure and agency in emerging adulthood. Journal of Youth Studies, 11(3), 251-268. doi: 10.1080/13676260801946464.

[4] Jeffrey Arnett is a prominent spokesperson for this view. See Arnett & Tanner (2006) Emerging Adults in America: Coming of Age in the 21st Century. Cote & Bynner (2008) are critical of Arnett’s claim that this life stage is developmental. They favour the material/economic explanation. See Cote, J. & Bynner, J. (2008). Changes in the transition to adulthood in the UK and Canada: the role of structure and agency in emerging adulthood. Journal of Youth Studies, 11(3), 251-268.

[5] See Katherine Newman’s Chutes and Ladders: Navigating the Low Wage Labour Market for a long-term study of poor youth and social mobility. Very cool book; great read. Also Granovetter, M. S. (1983). The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited. (P. V. Marsden & N. Lin, Eds.)Sociological Theory, 1(1983), 201-233. John Wiley & Sons. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/202051?origin=crossref. Less cool/more dry and academic-y but also good stuff, and important.

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