Tuesday, August 24, 2010

As a Career, I Don't Want to Do That

There's a new New York Times Magazine article making the rounds this week called "The Post-Adolescent, Pre-Adult, Not-Quite Decided Life Stage." In it, author Robin Marantz Henig examines twenty somethings—you know, those self-indulgent, irresponsible young adults who like to smoke pot and eat Doritos and hang around their parents’ basements. Henig is primarily interested in promoting the work of developmental psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, who believes that "emerging adulthood"—the stage of life confronted by people in their twenties—should be thought of as a distinct developmental stage, much like childhood, adolescence, and (regular) adulthood. The article seems to hold up Arnett on the one hand, with his touchy-feeling encouragement of arrested development, and a fictive parental figure, impatient with their child's wandering, on the other. Henig ultimately sides with Arnett. Yes, she acknowledges, twenty somethings are irresponsible and self-indulgent. But they are doing so only in the service of their later lives. She closes with a quote from Arnett: "Emerging adults [in the process of dicking around] develop skills for daily living, gain a better understanding of who they are and what they want from life and begin to build a foundation for their adult lives."

Bollocks! cries author Anya Kamenetz over at the Huffington Post. She prefers to view the twenty something malaise from the simple, and simplistic, point of view of an economist. Kamentez argues that the real story of our generation is one of debt (appropriately, she published a book called "Generation Debt"). According to Kamenetz, young people are smoking pot and eating Doritos in their parents’ basement not because they're feckless, or free-spirited, but because there are fewer and fewer jobs in an intensely competitive marketplace.

Nathan Heller, an editor at Slate, has put forth a theory—well, it’s more of a premise than a theory—that I found much more compelling. Helling argues that twenty somethings, far from being the wayward layabouts portrayed by Selig, are actually conservative compared to their parents. According to Heller, twenty somethings have internalized the values of the baby-boomers—which, after an ancient flirtation with free love and LSD, has basically boiled down to career, family, and cable TV—but, in the midst of a tumbling economy, are failing to actualize such lives for themselves. They are stuck in a "limbo-state caused by fixed-values systems and pervasive risk evasion." Not only are we conservative, according to Heller, but we lack imagination and oppose taking risks.

Now we're getting somewhere!

Personally, whenever an adult—as opposed to an emerging adult—asks me what I plan to "do" with my life, I quote from the film,
Say Anything:

"I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that."

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