Adulthood, lack of jobs, and slippery definitions
When I first read this article in the NY Times Magazine about how 20-somethings are delaying the supposed markers of adulthood—marriage, kids, financial independence—longer than they had in the past, I thought that the main flaw of it was that it didn’t address why financial independence was so hard to achieve. By casting the entire situation as a matter of desire and choice, the author missed the big picture, which is that people delay adulthood because the ability to be an adult requires a certain amount of privilege increasingly unavailable to young people. I tweeted about it at the time, noting the answer to the question, “Why don’t people grow up faster?” is incredibly, stupidly simple—because they are no longer any jobs for people in their early 20s that provide the means to be a full adult. Full stop. I don’t mean that entry level jobs only pay enough for a small apartment or a simple lifestyle. Often, they don’t pay enough to cover the rent on that small apartment—if they can find those jobs in the first place—and that’s why people move back in with their parents.
Which is why I saw red when I read this smarmy, self-righteous screed from some Baby Boomer. It’s a classic example of being born on third and thinking you hit a triple. She assumes that her ability to pay rent with her first job out of college is strictly because she’s so much more fucking awesome than you spoiled kids these days, and her parents were so much more responsible than the softies of today. For a millisecond, she ponders the possibility that things have changed because of financial constraints, but then dismisses that possibility with a handwave. It’s so much more fun to be self-righteous! It’s way more fun to wag your finger at young people and tell them how you lived on Ramen and beans to afford your apartment, never pausing for a moment to wonder if those kids might not be able to afford that apartment even if they lived on dog food.
Everyone I know who did a stint of living at home while legally an adult, including myself, did so out of financial necessity. That’s 100% of folks I’ve heard of doing so. In a way, it’s too bad, because the notion that living with your parents after becoming an adult is some great marker of shame is a relatively new idea, born out of the prosperity of the mid-century in America that our smug Boomer seems to think is just evidence of her super-awesome-better-than-you-ness. Throughout most of American history, family living with family wasn’t considered anything but normal, and in fact sort of the point of having a family. Indeed, I have to wonder if people who think that living with your parents after becoming an adult is non-negotiable aren’t speaking from a very narrow upper middle class perspective in general. When I was a kid, both of my parents went through stints of living with their parents after they were divorced. If you step outside of the world of status markers and fear of appearing too working class, the benefits of living with your parents in some situations are kind of obvious. It can be a bulwark against loneliness for all parties involved. It can save everyone money. (Notice how the assumption is that kids who move in aren’t contributing? In the real world, they’re often paying rent to their parents.) Atrios pointed out that the people who are preening about financial independence at an early age often were capable of this because they didn’t have to borrow to get through college. For parents who were unable to provide a free ticket through college to their kids, helping them get on their feet by sharing expenses after college is a way for the parent to help out while also relieving their own financial burden. It’s win-win for many families.
The fact that there was a brief period in American history where there was enough wealth going around that parents of all sorts of classes could provide enough for their kids to create “financial independence” at a young age is no reason to shame people who have to revert to the old ways now that our economy has reverted to the old ways of huge disparities in wealth between the classes. If you think that it’s so important for every 22-year-old to live on their own, with the illusion of having no help, then we need to return to the economic situations of the mid-century in America that allowed that to happen. And some of that may be hard to achieve, such as the far more affordable housing of that era.*
And hell, the notion that you could walk right out of college and into financial independence even then is something of a lie. I will point out that for all her preening, the Salon author didn’t actually achieve the financial independence and adulthood she’s so sure about:
The eyes of 20-somethings glaze over when we recount how we lived — sharing living quarters with a pile of friends, having only battered old belongings (and few of them to boot), eating cheap food we cooked ourselves, and spending little or nothing on entertainment.
She is of course, still full of shit, since that’s exactly how most people that age still live if they live on their own. Hell, I didn’t buy a single piece of real new furniture until I was about 30, and even then it was 50% off and from Penney’s. And technically, that’s still the only real piece of substantial furniture I own that’s new.
But let’s look at the larger story she tells—one of having roommates. This, despite her preening, is exactly the “extended adolescence” that she shames young people now for engaging in. Nelle Engoron can think she’s hot shit because she was so grown-up that she still lived like a college kid in her 20s, but I think she’s fudging a little. I could just as easily gloat that I was way adult much younger than her, because I never had a roommate again after I graduated college. After spending some time living with my mom, I moved in with a boyfriend, and was still pretty young at the time. I could say that while Engoron was flopping around smoking dope with her roomies like a college kid, I was starting to do grown-up things like going to dinner parties with other couples. But that would be something of a lie—not the dinner parties part, but the part where adulthood is so cut and dry. After all, I’m turning 33 in a couple of weeks, and I still mostly own used furniture, still go to rock shows and play video games for fun, and still live in an apartment that’s way too small for kids, not that I’d ever want any. The problem isn’t that human beings are failing to achieve arbitrary markers of adulthood. The problem is assuming, incorrectly, that there’s something universal and unchanging about standards that were based on a very 1950s-era idea of what middle class mores should be.
*We were watching “The Apartment” last night yet again, and one of the things that stuck out to everyone was that C.C. Baxter was able to afford an apartment on west 67th St. in Manhattan for less than a week’s salary a month. Nowadays, that is, of course, completely impossible for a man that I think we’re supposed to assume is 25 and in an entry level job for a college-educated man. In fact, that would probably be very difficult to afford for the executives whose positions he craves now.