Tuesday, August 24, 2010

In partial defense of emerging adulthood

The New York Times has a long piece up about the phenomenon of "emerging adulthood," or the idea that twenty-somethings are taking longer to pass traditional milestones of adulthood than have previous generations. Apparently it may be good that we are taking more time to make these choices, as perhaps that will help us make better ones. But some conservatives and libertarians are skeptical. Some not particularly coherent thoughts:

1. I've gone through emerging adulthood myself. I worked at a research assistantship for a brief period after college while trying to figure out if I wanted to go to law school or possibly some other type of graduate program. While spending the school years in Atlanta, I worked both summers up here in D.C. When I had to give the Virginia Bar an address list for the seven years prior to my application for admission, I had 17 different addresses on the list. So yeah, I moved around as or more often than the typical person portrayed in the Times article.

I'd also have a fairly long list of different jobs. If you look only at full-time employment, I had the social science research gig before going to law school, and two different jobs since. But if you look at summer internships and part-time jobs while in school and the like, the number would be much higher than that. Easily over seven. Keep in mind that I'm still only 28, and that there is a non-zero chance I may have yet other employment before hitting 30.

All of this has had some consequences for personal life. I did not marry the guy whom I started dating while I was working at the social science research firm, at least in part because of the long physical separation between us while I was in law school. I'm marrying a wonderful guy whom I met later, when I was more settled. There's part of me that's reluctant to have children in the really near future because of all of the bouncing around that I've done. I want at least another year or so of being able to say, "Oh, so that's what adult life feels like," of feeling settled, before bringing another human being into the picture. I sometimes feel that this is weird and wrong and crazy, but there it is. At the same time, I had lots of fun in law school and in the libertarian fellowship program I did after graduating, and on balance I am glad that I live in the dynamic world that I do.

2. There are good and bad approaches to emerging adulthood, and the fact that there are bad ways of approaching it shouldn't mean that the concept in and of itself is bad. There are low-skilled workers and hipster barista types who bounce around a lot, yes. But so do aspiring legal academic, who moves from a court of appeals clerkship to SCOTUS clerkship to VAP to tenure-track jobs. (Whew, that's four right there!) And there are people who bounce around among various tech startups and then make gobs of money eventually doing things I don't understand. Etc. There's bouncing that's likely to lead to bigger and better things and bouncing that's not so much. There's exploring in a purposeful, focused way and drifting around aimlessly. The differences get lost in articles like this one.

3. I suspect Maslow was roughly right at least descriptively in sketching out his hierarchy of needs.C.f. also the economist's commonplace that people tend to demand more leisure relative to other things as their incomes rise. Perhaps it is possible to tell people that they ought to behave under affluent conditions the same way they do under conditions of scarcity. But I suspect that such norms are unlikely to work well, and that fact goes to the desirability of enforcing the norm in the first place.

4. Yes, government subsidies for emerging adulthood type programs are silly and shouldn't exist. That I think this should not surprise anyone who reads this regularly.

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