Growing Up Has Become Increasingly Hard
Economic and societal circumstances make coming of age more and more difficult
In Western society today there is no denying that, following the economic crash of 2008 and its continued after-effects — including, more broadly, the increasingly obvious failure of the neo-liberal project to do anything other than enrich a very small slice of the world’s population — it takes longer — and is harder — to reach the milestones traditionally associated with adulthood.
These milestones include graduating from school or university, finding a paying job, buying a home, getting married and having children. With the price of education going up in the UK and U.S., well paid work scarcer, competition fiercer, house prices rising and sexual attitudes more liberal, it is taking Millenials longer to become “adults”.
For the generation of students that graduated during the economic recession, this is particularly true. In the United States, a society that traditionally encourages home ownership early in life, the last decade has seen a persistent rise in renting among young people. House sales reached a peak in the U.S. a decade ago but the bubble burst and since then credit has been hard to come by. This affected young potential buyers the most and so they rented instead. Only now is this trend beginning to change, with about 5.2 million renters saying they expect to buy a house in 2015 — up from 4.2 million a year earlier, according to the Zillow Housing Confidence Index.
The poor economic conditions of recent years have led to a re-categorising of priorities among young people. The idea of what an “adult” is has begun to shift. In 2012, Clark University produced a report that looked into the attitudes young people had regarding adulthood. Only 4% of those questioned by the report’s researchers cited “Getting married” as what was, to them, “most important for becoming an adult”. Instead, 36% said “Accepting responsibility for yourself” and 30% said, “Becoming financially independent”.
In response to the question, “Do you feel that you have reached adulthood?” more than 60% of 18- to 21-year-olds said that they had reached adulthood “in some ways yes, in some ways no”. For ages 26 to 29, this figure drops to a still not insignificant 30%.
The main author of this report is Jeffrey Arnett. At the beginning of this century, Arnett wrote an article in the American Psychologist that proposed a new life stage between adolescence and young adulthood in industrialised countries. He called this stage “emerging adulthood” and wrote that this was a “new conception of development for the period from the late teens through the twenties, with a focus on ages 18–25”. In large part, this new stage in life had come about, Arnett suggested, because of the transition away from a manufacturing economy to one based mainly on information, technology and services.
Twelve years later, in The Clark University poll, Arnett and his co-author Joseph Schwab insisted that emerging adulthood was here to stay but that it would only delay — and not fundamentally alter — traditional adulthood. They identified cultural changes that they believed were unlikely to be reversed. These included the pursuit of more and more post-secondary education as a means of preparing oneself for an increasingly competitive jobs market; getting married and having children later in life; and widespread acceptance (or at least tolerance) of premarital sex and cohabitation. These changes ensured that it made sense to “see emerging adulthood as a new life stage rather than as a generational shift that will soon shift again”.
The identification of further education as a CV-building necessity rather than a life-enriching experience is felt most strongly in countries in which university is not free. In the UK, the introduction of university tuition fees in the late 1990s and their increase through this century has meant that university graduates face unprecedented levels of debt. This debt is often exacerbated by the need students feel to spend longer in education in order to meet the increased demands of the job market. With more and more people going into higher education, a university degree or a college diploma is no longer a guaranteed ticket into adulthood. The job market, too, is no longer able to offer as much secure employment, as the explosion in zero hour contracts and self-employment suggests.
These conditions have resulted in higher level of anxiety among young people. University teachers everywhere have noted this in their students. “My students are lovely and very bright but they’re very fearful of failure and they’re wanting us to give them a template of what to do in the future”, Andrew Warnes, a professor in the English department at Leeds University, told me. Warnes compared this to students from earlier years. These students, he said, hadn’t been imprisoned by the need to make their education immediately service their debts.
Education and employment also no longer provide the key to home ownership. House prices in Britain are, according to an index published annually by the building society Nationwide, 100 times higher than they were at the beginning of the 1950s. In real terms adjusted for inflation, house prices have tripled in the last 20 years. Across the industrialised world, the baby boomer generation born after the Second World War was afforded access to a plentiful stock of affordable houses. Today, particularly in global centres like London, that is no longer the case.
The much-heard criticism of the baby boomers is that they pulled the rug up from underneath their children by creating a world in which financial profit trumped communal harmony. “There’s no such thing as society”, Margaret Thatcher famously said, and indeed the property speculation, deregulation, welfare tightening and individualism they indulged in played true to her words. Alongside that, the movement of global capital means that in cities like London houses are fought over by people from around the world and that, wherever you are, the jobs you might rely on or be interested in can always be taken elsewhere.
This is the economic and social landscape the emerging adult exists in. It’s a landscape whose significance the optimistic Arnett plays down. “I think the economic influence is limited”, he told me. “It’s always hard to enter the labour market, whether times are good or bad overall”. He prefers to see this period in life as a one that is imbued with a “sense of possibilities” that come from the exploration of identity and a focus on the self, as well as from a certain amount of instability.
But this kind of exploration requires time, which is in short supply; and more stability than our increasingly fragmented world provides. Arnett’s optimism seems misguided, or at least partially sighted — a Pollyanna’s response from a baby boomer that had things somewhat easier.
Perhaps, though, the optimism comes as a result of parents cushioning the blow in a way they might not have in the past. Early Adulthood in a Family Context identifies increased parental involvement in the lives of young adult children. This, the book’s research says, is a change from 30 years ago. “Parents and offspring are highly involved in one another’s lives as evident by their phone conversations (more than once a week) and frequent parental financial, practical, and emotional support”.
In a hard economic climate, financial support from parents has almost become a necessity. This, of course, widens the economic gap between those born into money and those not. It’s nice that parents and children seem to have more communicative relationships these days, but those without rich parents are increasingly fucked. It also makes it harder for children to move fully into adulthood. Economic ties often come with emotional ones. If you need to be supported in some way by your parents, can you truly grow up?
W. Keith Campbell, professor and head of the University of Georgia’s psychology department, specialises in narcissism, culture and generational change. In responding to a question about narcissism in young people he says that, in the United States at least, “there is a combination of joblessness and educational debt that has disproportionately harmed young people. They are in many ways responding rationally (in light of their upbringing) to a bad set of economic and political circumstances”.
As to whether “emerging adulthood” is a stage of life that is here to stay, even if economic circumstances change, he says: “My opinion is that we are entering an ‘adulthood optional’ society, but we won’t have the definitive answers for a decade or so”. Here, there is the prospect for what Campbell refers to as an “avoidance of traditional adulthood”, which could lead to a further decrease in marriage and birth rates in industrialised countries. Difficult economic conditions may have been behind the development of “emerging adulthood” as an identifiable stage of life but an “adulthood optional” society could exist even with favourable conditions.
It may be that the idea of the adult is now something only a child believes in. After all, having a house and some children does not preclude you from behaving like a child and the traditional expectations of adulthood have been shown also to be great burdens.
The characteristics of today’s emerging adults may have been shaped in large part by the particular economic realities they have had to deal with but those characteristics may well be here to stay, whatever happens.
(A version of this article appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of the Protein Journal)