On the category of emerging adulthood; or, how 20 somethings are wasting their lives

A Polemic

There’s been a lot of talk of late about 20 somethings. Discussions have ranged from their carnivorous tastes in social media to their open attitude toward sexuality to their desire for self-esteem. By my lights, the most interesting discussion has centered on a new category of individual development: emerging adulthood.

According to Jeffrey Arnett, the psychologist who coined the word, emerging adulthood is a period that 20 somethings go through between adolescence and adulthood. Development theories, he informs us, have modified in light of changing social, economic, and technological change in culture: adolescence was a new stage of development–a stage foreign to Renaissance humanists, say–during the early 21st C, something that grew out of changing child labor laws, improved medical care, and an enlarged commitment to nurturance. (Our lives have stretched further into the future: the 16th C. philosopher Michel de Montaigne retired from politics at the ripe old age of 39 and died before he turned 60.)

What characterizes this new developmental stage? First of all, by what it is not: not a time for finding a partner and getting married, for beginning careers, or for having children. Second of all, by what it is: a period in which individuals experiment, try out new identities, cycle through relationships, move around from place to place, and work in all kinds of arrangements or for various sorts of organizations. One thinks of internships (the good, the bad, and mainly the ugly) as a perfectly apt symbol for this phenomenon.

And what explains the emergence of this stage during this moment in history? One, the feminist revolution which has made it possible for women to be financially independent. Two, the “post-religious age,” a time when the grip of traditional religions has loosened even as Americans continue to describe themselves as ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual.’ Three, a new sexual morality marked by consensual, contingent sexual arrangements (“fuck buddies,” “hook-up culture” in the US, “shag culture” in Britain, and so on). Four, the entrenchment of Progressive pedagogical theories emanating from Dewey and propounding not just that each individual matures ‘organically’ but also that self-esteem is the most important attribute in young persons. Five, Romanticism more generally, which held that my life should be fashioned into a work of art. And, six, a paradigm shift in the global economy with the “gig economy”–freelancing of all kinds–slowly supplanting the Organizational Man model.

I suspect that, for 20-year-olds, this picture of individual and social life is as scary as it is exhilarating. On the Right, the emerging adult is censured for his wanton immorality: all hipsters walking their turtles. On the Left, she is tolerated or, by some, celebrated for being a free spirit. For their part, sociologists and psychologists (at least the ones I’ve been reading) have tended to press one of two cases concerning emerging adulthood. For some, this new stage is neither good nor bad but necessary. For others, it is actually good in that it allows young persons to come to a greater sense of themselves gingerly and prudently under the conditions of an increasingly complex globalized world. Being “whole persons” is not the work of a day. Growing up is taking longer; and it’s much harder.

And where do I stand? By Aristotle’s side. I disagree with those on the Right, those on the Left, and the group of sociologists and psychologists I briefly mentioned. With those on the Right because the attitude wreaks of moralism. They offer an external critique that is at once unhelpful and inaccurate and that comes dressed up in self-righteousness. With those on the Left because toleration is hardly a final position in matters of ultimate normative importance. Do as you like so long as you don’t harm others begs off considering whether one’s life is well-worth living. And I part ways with those sociologists and psychologists who insist that we simply look on and study the thing or, alternatively, who urge that there’s something inevitable and necessary or especially good about this stage.

I want to argue instead that we’ve lost sight of the telos of human development: to wit, human flourishing. Many 20 somethings who fit this general description could be best categorized as wastrels, as half-grown-ups. They are wasting their talents rather than cultivating them, and they have abdicated responsibility for the general shape of their lives. In my experience, many are unmoored, flighty, fickle, and, not the least, uninteresting (in the dramatic sense, that is). They sound like nihilists and anarchists, half-aware of the manifold implications and meanings, half-educated in school and in the school of life. Unanchored by traditions or communities, they lack direction and purpose. And it shows.

A more grounded life is tied to commitments, stances, and others. Friendship, Aristotle says, must be one of equality and reciprocity, not one of pleasure or convenience. Facebook is no substitute for the face-to-face. Love must be eros but also obligation. The hook-up may accord one pleasure, yet it hardly satisfies the needs of our higher being. Finally, conduct must be attached, but not contingently, to consequences; words beautiful but also good and true.

Perhaps it’s too soon to tell whether 20 somethings will become the right kinds of adults or whether they will sink into quiet despair. And perhaps those sociologists playing it safe will be proved right. Yet one question is still left hanging: namely, how will the Prodigal Son return, and how will the common good be fulfilled?