Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Slackers or Emerging Adults

Some people grow up; some grow down; some don’t grow at all.

Mix the current weak job market with a culture that devalues work in favor of indulgence, and you create a generation that is more likely than ever to finish college and move back in with Mom and Dad.

If these young people feel that somehow they are slacking off, they can turn to the latest psycho theory and discover that they are living out a new developmental stage. They are “emerging adults.”

I assume this means that they are not about to merge any time soon.

Released from duty, obligation, and responsibility, these emerging adults are following their bliss on a multiyear voyage of self-discovery.

Psychologists are largely nonplussed about this systematic moral abdication. They are gnashing their teeth over the dire possibility that these young people might suffer a wound to their self-esteem.

So, they invented the category of emerging adults so that no one would be tempted to call them shirkers, slackers, decadents, or professional parasites.

The man who invented emerging adulthood is Clark University psychologist Jeffrey Arnett. This new developmental stage has been extensively chronicled in New York Times Magazine by contributor, Robin Henig. Link here.

But now, a Harvard graduate student named Rita Koganzon has skillfully revealed it for the moral cop out that it really is. Link here.

As I see the emerging adult stage it has much in common with extended psychotherapy. For those who still do not believe me when I say that therapy, as a cultural phenomenon, has not yet gone the way of alchemy, I would offer this notion of emerging adulthood.

Back in the old days, beginning with Freud, therapists told their patients to forgo major life decisions during treatment.

When you are giving yourself over to the daunting task of intense, introspective self-exploration, you should not allow yourself to be distracted by reality.

They were all following Freud’s lead. The great Viennese neurologist claimed that if you had not psychoanalyzed your motives then you would be acting out your neurosis in your life choices. But once you had thoroughly rummaged through your memory bank and dumped it all into the Oedipus complex, you would naturally make better and freer decisions.

If a neurotic is someone who does what other people want him to do, a well-analyzed soul has discovered his heart’s desire, his true passion, and what he really, really wants.

Once he does that he will naturally set off on a pathway that might lead to success.

That was the claim; that was the rationale for extended, intense psychotherapy. It didn’t really work very well, for reasons that Koganzon analyzes, but it was highly saleable.

Anyway, Koganzon cuts through the psychobabbble about identity exploration and feelings of in-between-ness to ask the right question: “If the twentysomethings who are living with their parents and meandering in and out of work and relationships are not trying to find themselves but really trying to find increasingly elusive jobs, then there is nothing to celebrate.”

But why would we want to celebrate aimlessness and anomie? Perhaps, because the psychologist who is celebrating it has made a reputation for himself by doing so. Or else, as Koganzon says, it is good for your self-esteem to rebrand: “indolence as self-discovery.”

With their rebranding, psychologists have once again wrung the ethics out of behavior. By refusing to see these adults as products of a sharp economic decline, facing a daunting job market, they are saying that they need therapy more than jobs. To be more precise, by rebranding the problem therapists are marketing their services to a whole new patient population.

What will therapy do for these emerging adults? It will do what Koganzon says that the new theory promises: rationalize their indolence as freedom and self-realization.

Why so,  you ask? Because psychologists have decided that decisions made under duress-- as in, you need to find a job to support yourself or your family-- are, by definition, less free.

Does this mean that the only people who are truly free are those who do not have to work for a living? As Koganzon notes, there is some very strange and faulty reasoning going on here.

First, she notes, because there is no evidence to suggest that as we get older and more jaded, we necessarily make better decisions.

Worse yet, you cannot learn to make decisions unless you actually make decisions. The only way you can learn to take responsibility for yourself is to take responsibility for yourself. The longer you postpone these inevitable steps into adulthood the more difficult they will become.

In fact, the great drama of extended unemployment is that the longer you go without work the more difficult it is to enter the workforce. When they ask you on that job application what you have been doing for the past few years, you cannot put down: working through my emergent adult stage.

If you have been exploring the workings of your psyche while your peers have been exploring the workings of the marketplace, they will have developed work skills, along with the knowledge and contacts that only come through experience.

Where the psychologists claim that young people are being freed for self-exploration, the truth is, as Koganzon astutely notes, is that they are being freed from responsibility.

In her words: “Noble as it may sound to aspire to selflessness, independence of mind, and responsibility for one’s actions, these qualities are subjective, limitless, and have little specifically to do with adulthood.

“Moreover, if adulthood comes to be defined as independence from other people — ‘standing alone‘ — then it is at odds with family and indeed, most of the social life of adults, which has the tendency to trap one in a web of pesky obligations and dependencies without which society cannot persist.”

Koganzon adds that there is no real evidence suggeseting that previous generations, the ones who had to make major life decisions while they were relatively young, were choosing badly.

She might have mentioned the greatest generation, a generation that went off to fight World War II, out of necessity, not out of choice, and that came home to get an education and to get to work, out of necessity, not out of choice.

Worse yet, the theory of emerging adulthood implies that we are a very, very wealthy nation that can support years worth of post-adolescent indolence. If that is the lesson we are passing on to the young generation, we are doing it a serious disservice.

Once these young adults discover what they really want to do with their lives, life will have largely passed them by.

And what is going to happen to them when they run out of their parents’ money and when their insurance will no longer cover all of their therapy sessions. They will be without prospects, set permanently adrift.

If the nation needs everyone to get to work in order to get us out of the trouble we have gotten ourselves into, then it is socially irresponsible for psychologists to tell young people that it is just as good not to work.


David Foster said...

As I asserted a few posts down, it is not natural or psychologically healthy for most people to spend 16 or 20 years being basically useless. When you're a student, you're not doing anything of value to someone ELSE in the same sense that you are if you're fixing a car or cooking a meal or designing a's all about YOU and your "potential", rather than your performance.

Some people can deal well with this: they have the vision and the future orientation to see how what they are doing now will affect what they later become and do. There are many who do *not* make the connection well, though, and the more emphasis there is on "college for everyone", the more people are swept up in the net. The effect is like turning a high-morale volunteer army into a sullen army of draftees who don't understand why they are there but are told that they must be.

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