Growing up too fast and growing up too slowly have long since been questioned. Tom Hanks in "Big."
Growing up too fast and growing up too slowly have long since been questioned. Tom Hanks in “Big.”

It used to be that almost no one worried about the transition from adolescence to adulthood; as the teenage years wrapped up, it was assumed by scholars, policy makers, parents, pundits, and  young folks themselves that they’d finish their schooling and get a job, find a mate, buy a home, and have kids. Once all of these milestones were passed, they’d fairly quickly settle into the regular, routinized world of adult life. Whatever the other limits of this halcyon and harmonious view, one thing is now clear: a swift, smooth transition to adulthood can’t be taken for granted.

Beginning in the last quarter of the 20th century and now into the new millennium, social scientists from a wide range of fields have documented that the transition to adulthood has become more complicated, multifaceted, and extended. Scholars now see coming-of-age and transitioning into adulthood as a new, distinctive phase in the lifecourse. Indeed, we academics have coined new terms for the period—“emerging adulthood” in the psychological parlance, or “young adulthood” or “early adulthood” for those more sociologically inclined.

How should we understand this new, more extended, and uncertain transition period? What are the forces driving these changes? And what can we or should we do about the fact that it is taking young people longer and longer to make the transitions and assume the role we have so long associated with adulthood?

One of the most recent areas of research and inquiry has begun to look at how young adults understand their own experiences and pathways. I’ve been part of a research group originally convened by Frank Furstenberg and supported by the MacArthur Foundation, and we’ve conducted a series of interviews with a diverse group of young Americans in all across the U.S. with this goal. The group has released a number of papers and several different books in the past few years. Over the past couple of weeks, in fact, I’ve been struggling to cobble together a conclusion a forthcoming book in the series, this one on how young people understand particular domains and aspects of life (marriage and family, work, politics, and education, recreation, and leisure) that I’m editing with Teresa Swartz and Ruben Rumbaut.

Actually talking to young people about their lives and their transitions into adulthood has the potential to make a number of contributions to our understanding of the transition to adulthood. It helps make this transition more real and bring to light the challenges and opportunities it presents. It can help us better understand the complexity of the issues and challenges emerging adulthood presents as well as the concerns and interests of young adults—where they want and need help. Yet I have to admit that summarizing all of our insights and findings into a single document has been more difficult than I anticipated. It’s hard to draw out big, general conclusions from so many interviews that seem to suggest so many different things about an already complex social phenomenon.

So it is with all of this in mind that I discovered, with equal parts admiration and frustration, jealously and awe, Nathan Heller’s provocative review of a spate of recent popular press or “trade” books on twentysomethings—including one by Samantha Henig, a veteran science reporter, and her daughter Robin Marantz, a blogger, web editor, and the author of a widely discussed 2010 TIME magazine article called “What is it about twenty-somethings?“—in a recent New Yorker piece. I’ve blogged a couple of times recently on the virtues of engaging with sociologically-inclined policy-makers, pundits, activists, and critics as a way to advance sociological knowledge and insight. Heller’s review strikes me in just this fashion, reminding me both of the tremendous benefits of engaging with this side of public sociology as well as what it is academic scholars have to contribute.

Heller, who writes with a clarity, confidence, and panache rarely seen in academic circles, helps illuminate the experiences, understandings, and challenges of young people in this phase of life. In offering up his own insights and experiences, he helps us understand who these young people are, how they think, and the opportunities and obstacles they face. Heller is particularly adept at capturing the complexity, uncertainty, and variation of the period. “Twentysomethings spend their days rearing children, living hand to mouth in Asia, and working 60-hour weeks on Wall Street. They are moved by dreams of adult happiness, but the form of those dreams is as serendipitous as ripples in a dune of sand. Maybe your life gained its focus by college. Maybe a Wisconsin factory is where the route took shape. Or maybe your idea of adulthood got its polish on a feckless trip to Ireland. Where you start out—rich or poor, rustic or urbane—won’t determine where you end up, perhaps, but it will determine how you get there.” “The twenties,” he concludes at one point, “are when we turn what Frank O’Hara calls ‘sharp corners.'” Heller also understands the all anxieties and questions this poses for the rest of us, for society as a whole. “One morning, you open the newspaper and read that today’s young people are an assiduous, Web-savvy master race trying to steal your job and drive up the price of your housing stock. The next day, they’re reported to be living in your basement, eating all your shredded wheat, and failing to be marginally employed, even at Wendy’s.”

Journalists and popular writers sometimes falter when it comes to putting new social phenomenon in broader social and historical context. Not so for Heller. A film and television critic for Vogue, Heller highlights how important innovations in technology and communication have been in the lives of twentysomethings, creating a daily lifeworld and imaginary “dreamscape” that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago: the Occupy movement; lives dominated by smartphones, Facebook, and Twitter; and the literature, television, and culture of the moment. All this means “the voice of early mastery without mature constraint, self-discovery as a moment when each revelation seems unique.”

Driven less by economics and dynamics (as we sociologists tend to have it) and more by shifting cultural priorities and desires that trace back to the 1960s, “…today’s young people aren’t so much living a new kind of life as reaping the returns on ideas conceived years ago,” their online culture and daily lives, he writes, are dominated by “an inherited dreamscape.” “All of this reinforces the suspicion that today’s twentysomethings aren’t formed of special clay but represent a reshaped version of that old material.” Heller also speculates about how the transition to adulthood may not be a new historical phenomenon—that all transitions produce their share of opportunities and angst, and “emerging adulthood” may just be a longer period of transition and ambivalence that has been with us a long time. Unbound by the methods and conventions of standard social science, Heller speculates provocatively on the broader significance of easing into adulthood: “Twentysomething culture is intimate and exclusive, on the one hand, and eternal on the other. We tout this stage of life, in retrospect, as free, although we ogle the far shores of adulthood while we’re there. The shock of the twenties is how narrow that window of experience really is, and how inevitable it seems both at the time and afterward.”

Initially reading Heller’s review left me feeling somewhat depressed—not about twentysomethings and their transitions, but about my own inadequacies and shortcomings as a scholar and a writer. I mean, here I’ve spent years on a project interviewing twentysomething young adults and I’m still struggling to figure out exactly what we learned and how to write it up; this movie critic can jot off several thousand words that not only grasp much of what I’ve been trying to say, and he does it better and more economically than I could ever hope!

As I reread, I began to realize more clearly how the scholarly research I’ve been involved with has helped to produce and shape this kind of journalism, and how journalists have helped us think about what we hope to contribute. For one thing, though Heller and the authors he reviews allude to social scientific research only occasionally (and cite it even less frequently), it is clear that research really shaped what “we” know and how we think about this population and their place in the life course. Heller’s review and all of the new books on young adulthood both depend upon the last decade or so of research—the basis for these writings isn’t just anecdotal, but holds broadly, is pervasive, and is widely distributed.

Heller’s review also reminds me that the general public and popular press are not nearly as attentive to the difference, diversity, inequality and unevenness of the transition to adulthood as those of us actually doing research in the area. To his credit, Heller points out that “much of what we know” about twentysomethings is basically about able-bodied, white, middle-class Americans. But still, in the absence of systematic research and inquiry into the experiences and understandings of other groups, that’s as far as he can go. This makes it hard to appreciate why this transition can be experienced differently depending upon one’s cultural background or upbringing.  To give one example: our interviews with young adults from racial minority backgrounds, especially those from immigrant families, seem to understand the transition to adulthood less as striving for independence and autonomy (as stressed in the dominant culture) and more about assuming roles and responsibilities of interdependence.

Scholars’ systematic, cultural analysis has other contributions as well. Heller, following Henig and her daughter, puts a great deal of emphasis on choice in this period in the life course. Quoting the Henig and Marantz: “Choice overload… makes people worry about later regretting the choice they make (if there are twelve things I could do tonight, any one of them might end up being more fun than the one I choose); sets them up for higher expectations (If I choose this party out of those twelve things, it damn well better be fun); makes them think about the road not taken (Every party not attended could contain someone I wish I’d met); and leads to self-blame if the outcome is bad.” This is a very provocative formulation of an important modern dynamic. However, ruminating on choice can gloss over several crucial of a broader, more global view of young adulthood. For one, while it makes a lot more sense to talk about options and choices in some domains (marriage and relationships and child bearing, for example) than in others.

Henig and Marantz, for example, talk a lot about fickleness in the job market, but professional uncertainty and change is clearly not a matter of choice for many–perhaps not even most (consider internships, which are so often unpaid and even requisite for many fields). Choices about careers, housing, healthcare, and even education are available to only certain groups of privileged young people. Some may have the luxury of obsessing about job to apply for, while others worry over which bill to try to pay. And others may have few real choices at all. Further, focusing so much on forgets all of the constraints that affect even for the most privileged and well-positioned. Twentysomething young Americans may be adapting well to the longer, more uncertain transitions in front of them these days, but ultimately they have little choice in the matter. Elongated, uncertain pathways are the result of broad, pervasive demographic shifts, economic forces, and cultural trends.

I found Heller’s speculations on the kind of timeless and eternal nature of the current twentysomething transitional period quite provocative and compelling—how change is always difficult, how many of us went through this earlier in our lives. Yet recognizing such continuity and commonality cannot blind us to the truly unique nature of this historical moment The persistent challenge is to recognize what is both familiar and distinctive about these situations and experiences.

None of this is to dismiss the contributions of a writer and thinker like Heller. Quite the contrary, it is to remind myself to be generous (not jealous) in engaging writers from other fields and to be clear-headed about what my (and my colleagues’ best and most important contributions to public understanding might be.