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What to do when history is not on your side?

I can’t believe we’re going through this again.

In January 2005, Time magazine featured on its cover a photo of a young man in a shirt and dress slacks sitting in a sandbox. The headline: “They Just Won’t Grow Up.” The article featured the research of one Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, PhD, a developmental psychologist who coined the term “emerging adulthood” to explain these puzzling, infantilized adults.

The cover story of the New York Times Magazine this weekend, already situated snugly at the top of the Most-Emailed List, is a near-exact repeat of this story from 5 years ago, this time asking “What is it About Twenty-Somethings?” Again Arnett is the resident featured expert. The Times’ only innovation, besides the slightly higher quality of the writing and the greater length, is tarting up the article with lots of sexy pictures of 20somethings (“I’m lying on my bed, all angsty! Look down my shirt!”) so readers can lust after them while simultaneously shaking their heads.

[. . .]

There is no mysterious collective 20something malaise. The poor position of our nation’s future workforce is the outgrowth of decades of economic policy–the growth of consumer and national debt and the deterioration of the American job market, the protection of old-people programs like Social Security and Medicare and the faltering of opportunity-creating programs like education and health care for all. Maybe the Times should be talking to its own Paul Krugman, not a psychologist. (Anya Kamenentz, “What’s up with Twentysomethings? In a Word, Economics,” DIY U, 19 August 2010)

I think that the economy has certainly helped ensure a “delayed transition,” but it isn’t the cause of it. The cause is whatever was on the minds of adults that ensured that they (note: not greedy elites) created a world that would leave their children scrambling to convince themselves they’ll ever be as adult – as mature — as their own parents were/are. If your own parents kind of like the idea of their kids being unlikely to ever effectively warrant their holding presumptive moral authority over them, kind of like the idea of a world that ensures that their kids will never quite feel secure and safe enough to roam too far from their own expectations / wishes of them, then you’re fighting against a lot that might keep you from feeling trenchantly independent, even if you were to score a franchise of husband-wife, career, house, children by the age of 25 (accoutrements, of course, that demonstrate you are living the life others expect of you — that you are playing along: there is no escape). There are people hovering over you, of the type that (increasingly — maybe not even) covertly partake in the seemingly now guilt-free opportunity to peer down your shirt that your blameworthy / childish / bad-lingering has somehow freely opened up for them, while overtly sighing and wishing you would finally grow up: they’re clearly ones to enjoy the fruits of a situation they are pretending only to decry. If you’ve spent your youth amongst parents/elders like that, long experiencing unresolvable, contradictory expectations from you– in what R.D. Laing once determined as a schizophrenia-inducing kind of environment — you haven’t the sanity or the stuff to create your own 60s to clear your way free of your parent’s intention to always be your overlords. Rather, there will be something in you working away until you yourself are convinced you are as lazy and indulgent as your parents perceive you as — whatever the state of economy, how impossible an environment you’ve been given to prove you’re up to snuff. Repeatedly through history, but a good while back, this kind of horrific, impossible environment drew many to eagerly sign up for war. Instantly, they were war heroes, ready to demonstrate their in fact existing virtue in their willingness to play to the sacrificial wishes of their mother-country. A shorter while back, we remember Faramir sacrificing himself so his disapproving steward father would finally for once “think better of him,” and how an audience engaged with what was on screen, with what they felt inside themselves.

The 60s generation made their way free because after the mass sacrifice of WW2, allowance / permission (even if at first, cautious) had power over restriction / punishment — hemming parents were pit not so much against their children as against historical law, and surely felt and maybe knew their fate was to be neutralized until their own children had franchised themselves to the point that they were now ready to statue their slowly crumbling parents as the Greatest Generation. There is no such great wind behind the backs of today’s millenials; their best bet is if some of them — despite Reagan, 80s on — actually have the self-assurance / self-esteem they keep being credited for possessing: with that they might smartly placate, but never dumbly play into, the desires of an older populace, increasingly intent on ensuring that the one thing kids do not do is lead / possess their own independent lives.

Note: If charged, emotive talk of mass child-sacrifice seems out of place in an economic discussion, please skip Paul Krugman’s most recent NYT article. Mind you, since he’s moved from repeatedly calling current economic policies “cruel” to thinking of them as willed blood-lettings of the-mad-but-in-charge, I’m not quite sure how long Krugman will keep his hold “as a man to be reckoned with.” What do you do with a man who once routinely offered sober reasonings but now finds explanations in strange analogies, runes and animal guts?

Krugman link:


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