A lot of people have been chatting about the NYT Magazine piece on 20-somethings and their seeming ambivalence and inclinations towards moderate-to-severe quarter life crises. The article is long, but very interesting and full of relevant and interesting research and, at times, statistics about the current 20-something generation in relation to past ones, so I recommend reading it for a fuller picture of the pros and cons of the current ambiguity, “delays,” etc of emerging adults. It also references a New Yorker cover I find amusing.
My personal observation is that a lot of this comes down to the issue of choice.
As a college student of psychology, I learned that having a plethora of choice has the counterintuitive effect of making us less happy. As a stupid example, you will be happier if you choose chocolate ice cream from among 5 flavors than if you chose it from 20, mostly because having 15 more choices make you question if you made the “right one.” This seemed a pretty accurate fact to me at the time and now, several years later, I can only continue to fervently shake my head in somewhat-saddened ascension. Our generation has an almost infinite number of choices and freedom and I for one am incredibly grateful for having a feeling of possibility that is based on actuality (instead of being delusional), but those very same possibilities may be leading us to delay undertaking certain adult “milestones” (career, marriage, children), to depend/mooch more on our families, to dilly-dally because we are not sure which equally awesome path to take. It’s the chocolate ice cream problem – we’re not sure if becoming a nurse is the best choice…maybe we should study law….or just get married to our high school sweetheart already…or maybe join the Peace Corps. Ambiguity can be a really great thing if we use to figure out just what the best (I hate to say “right”) things for us are, but it can also be crippling. (On my soapbox), I think women have struggled with this somewhat across socioeconomic and cultural divides because of the influx of choices opened to them in the past decades; especially for those of us in emerging adulthood, the prospect of a career to conquer, a family to feed, and finding ways to do them simultaneously can at times seem like a big unanswered unknown. There are not only a million flavors, we now have to select several and make sure they blend and taste well together?
Speaking more of choice, ironically, our generation also has less of them to make in certain specific contexts. Prominently, earlier generations, for instance, had wars that reached them in a more personal way that our current conflicts reach most of us (this is in no way to belittle or underestimate the effect war has on certain people today, obviously). Most of us will not enlist and most Americans are remarkably uninformed and unaware of not only world politics, but the very international conflicts that our soldiers are fighting and dying in. For the most part, the threat of a war does not affect our generation in the same way it affected our grandparents’. This feeling of security has taken away several important decisions from our plate (enlisting, for example) and opened up the possibility to many other ones.
The advances of technology have made some decisions increasingly lighthearted or even un-important: if you fall in love with someone from California, you don’t have to decide to marry them and move there, you can just carry on a Skype-facilitated relationship. We can travel abroad, change careers, keep in touch with people and news in ways that are significantly different from even a short 20 years ago. We don’t have to make the same in-depth commitments and our decisions don’t have to carry the same weight. As a personal example, I decided to move to New York even though I hated it, merely because it did not seem like a remarkable deal to change states for a couple of years while I went to graduate school. Being able to relocate much easier delays anxiety about putting down roots, even as it allows us a whole series of new possibilities.
According to the article, we are less certain but more optimistic about the future, and most of us are busy with the business of defining ourselves and growing into adulthood by testing, trying, questioning. This is neither a universal nor sequential process, but it is happening and the questions it raises remain: is this good or bad? is this a generational phase or a permanent developmental shift that will be the case from now on?