In her polemic entitled “Slacking as Self-Discovery,” Rita Koganzen calls into question the view that “emerging adulthood” is a vital exploratory period in the life of twenty somethings.
I think Koganzen’s article is smart, albeit one-sided. Smart: Like Michael Sandel, she argues that the conception of the “voluntarist self”–a self unencumbered by external influences and concerned above all with its capacity to choose–is a bankrupt moral conception. I agree.
But one-sided inasmuch as she fails to take seriously two fundamental late modern problems. Pluralism, the view that there are a multitude of final ends, entails the loss of a single telos, that toward which we strive. But if pluralism is true, then how do we know which final end is choiceworthy and how do we know that we’re not wasting our lives? I call this the “wastrel problem,” and I think it leads many twenty somethings to feel bewildered and paralyzed.
There is a second problem with Koganzen’s argument–that of living in a post-religious, post-traditional society. We lack the social glue–the social institutions, the multitude of free associations, the deeply rooted traditions–that, in the past, had served to bind us to each other. In which case, nihilism, which I take to be the inability to see how one’s life is connected to a larger whole, becomes a genuine issue for twenty somethings.
Emerging adulthood, we might say, is both the symptom of these larger problems and a social defense mechanism–an unworkable adaptation, to be sure–that twenty somethings have unwittingly and unconsciously adopted. One could do worse than call emerging adulthood a tragedy.
Here’s my short essay on emerging adulthood.