Recently my husband and I had dinner with two of my former students–one of whom has a job after graduate school, one who does not. We offered all sorts of traditional advice about perseverance in job searches, commitment in relationships, sacrifice in family life–and in the back of my mind, I wondered whether we were speaking a foreign language these twenty-somethings.
Hannah Seligson, author of Mission: Adulthood: How the 20-Somethings of Today Are Transforming Work, Love, and Life, argues that us old folks (those of us born in 1977 or earlier) don’t understand the strengths of young’uns born between 1978 and 2000, or the unique challenges they face, because we’ve been brainwashed by bad-news media. Studies that fret over the laziness, selfishness, and entitlement of “kids these days” are missing the point, she writes. Instead, young-adults are
putting less emphasis on what used to be considered the highest ideals of adulthood: marriage, buying a home, and having kids during the post-college decade. And that isn’t so terrible. Instead, we are focusing on the search for personal fulfillment and being happy, often to the chagrin of our grandparents, parents, and employers . . .
We are searching for other things as well: a diversity of experiences, the pursuit of a meaningful and gratifying vocation, and financial independence before commitment. These and other generational predilections have advantages and disadvantages. Many are driven by sweeping societal trends outside of our control and, of course, the economy.
In Mission: Adulthood, Seligson followed seven people–three women and four men, all college educated, but from diverse racial, political, and religious backgrounds–for more than a year to create in-depth profiles of people “indigenous to the 21st century.”
Generational studies are often so generalized that they can sound like horoscopes, Seligman admits. But Mission: Adulthood avoids this trap by presenting genuinely compelling stories instead of snippets and vignettes amid a slew of statistics. Employers, college counselors, and twenty-somethings themselves are likely to find relatable narratives of what it’s like to come of age today.
Growing up today is about striving and seeking in a Darwinian sense, Seligson argues, with young adults evolving to survive in a hyper-competitive world where student debt is the norm, entrepreneurship offers possibilities and pitfalls, demographic shifts are creating a new image of America, and marriage and family are something college-educated folks are thinking about in their thirties, not their twenties.
If the trifecta of adulthood for previous generations was a linear marriage, mortgage, and kids, for today’s twenty-somethings it’s more of a winding road of education (and the loans that come with it), finding a job in a tough economy, the struggle for financial independence because the available jobs don’t always cover the student loans, and the desire to find a stable relationship—eventually—along the way. A universal road map doesn’t exist, but Seligson’s profiles are an inspiring snapshot of the possibilities.