33 going on 80

I recently read Sally Koslow’s new book, Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest. In it, Koslow chronicles, from a baby boomer perspective, all that is weird about what she calls “adultescents.” These are generally defined as people ages 22-35. Much of the laments will be familiar: people flit from job to job. They flit from grad school to work and to general odysseys. They aren’t particularly interested in settling down or getting married, and if they are, they can’t find partners who are similarly inclined. Young women in this group will age out of their fertility window before they actually consider themselves adults! Then there’s the cliche of the 20-something college grad moving back home, an un- or under-employed man-child in his boxers drinking your beer. To Koslow, this was no cliche. It was life when her son Jed moved back in and eventually had to be pushed hard to take a job he’d been offered and move out, rather than subsisting on unemployment checks (fun money when mom and dad pay the bills).

Parts of the book were quite funny: “Recently, when a new friend of one of my sons realized that Rob [her husband] and I were both the original, still-married parents of our child, he looked so gobsmacked I felt as if I’d stumbled out of a diorama at the Museum of Natural History,” Koslow writes. Some parts are poignant. How, for instance, does one deal with the partner of a co-habitating child? Koslow becomes increasingly attached to “delightful women who could be deleted from our life in the time it takes for them to call Moishe’s Movers.”   

My biggest beef with this very readable book, though, is that I’m a member of this demographic she writes about — and I had trouble finding myself anywhere in this puzzling lament. Here’s something I don’t worry about: my biological clock. Having cranked out three children by age 32, I don’t hear its loud ticking at night. Perhaps its loud ticking is muffled by the more urgent howling of a 2-year-old who just fell out of bed. In a development related to those three children, I got married at 25. I’ve been plugging along in the same field for a decade. I work for myself, which perhaps seems a bit like an inability to settle down, but I view it as strategic. I control my time and (to a degree) my income. The free agent life is the way the economy is going. Other than that, I am a responsible, settled, tax-paying, married homeowner. I am 33 going on 80. My parents are the ones who lived in the pup tent in Europe for a while — not me.

Which brings us to a larger question: Can generations really be defined by certain characteristics? I am sure since we lived in caves old people have been complaining about young people. But real differences in generations can only happen if the world is changing in such a rapid fashion that change is noticeable in 20-30 years. That’s only been true for the last 100-200 years at most. Take the issue of making plans. I could see that young people don’t put as much of a premium on making plans, because they don’t need to. You can always call people while you’re out and arrange to meet them. But I’ve had a cell phone for a decade and I still like making plans. Plans make me happy! I tend to gravitate toward other people who like plans, no matter what age they are. Perhaps certain characteristics are more pronounced in certain generations. But human nature doesn’t change that much. Someday, modern adultescents will grow up to write ebooks about the crazy ways of kids these days — these days defined as, oh, 2035. You can bank on that. 

9 thoughts on “33 going on 80

  1. I hate it when I’m grouped with Gen Y rather than Gen X (and usually I’m grouped with X in these breakdowns). I share more characteristics with X than with Y. My students don’t remember ICQ or Napster or life without cell phones. They don’t have friends who made it big during the dot com boom. (And I guess I’m also a bit different for the same reasons you’re stating, though I’m a bit late compared to other people in the South… my poor little sister, who is gen Y, is an old maid in her 20s. She’s going to have to wait for the first round of divorces to find someone.)

    The other thing that really bugs the crap out of me is sweeping generalizations about cohorts for work purposes. The, “how do deal with boomers in your company” “how to deal with gen Y in the workforce” etc. because this adds to statistical discrimination. Even if it is true that on average people in a cohort behave a certain way, that does not mean that everybody in that cohort behaves that way and it definitely does NOT mean that everybody in that cohort in your company behaves that way. Older folks who select into keeping working will be different than the ones who retire and should not be held to the same stereotypes. Not all 22 year olds have helicopter parents, and very likely a company will hire those who do not over those who do. There’s no need for the company to adjust to mommy and daddy. And so on.

  2. Being a few years older than you, I am firmly in the midst of Generation X. Most of my peers are in the same place as I am—went from college to careers they are still in, or immediately to graduate school & then careers they expect to be lifelong…it was just what was expected at the time. Most of us got married in our mid/late twenties & have kids, though a few of my girl friends are still single, not for lack of trying to find a mate or being overly “picky”, just plain bad luck. Overall though, I think there is a trend towards prolonging adolescence…marriages & motherhood are coming later & later, a lot of graduate schools (i.e. the medical school I work for) expect & want their applicants to have unrelated work/volunteer/travel experience instead of the straight-out-of-college 22 year old. Careers are no longer considered “lifelong”, and many people re-invent themselves professionally several times by their 30s. I’m sure the current economy has a lot to do with it—its hard to “settle down” when you don’t have a job, or a steady job—if you think you may need to move any minute for a job opportunity, why establish a steady relationship in your current city? I think I’ll skip that book, bemoaning the inferior moral fiber of today’s youth is just so cliche.

    1. “Careers are no longer considered “lifelong”, and many people re-invent themselves professionally several times by their 30s. ”
      This has been an ongoing trend that started long before the current recession. There’s a really famous paper we read about these trends (that I cannot remember the authors of) in graduate labor a good 10 years or so ago.
      Some of this change may have to do with ERISA, which, in various ways, changed the way benefits lock people to companies and encouraged the growth of non-vesting. However, there are a lot of other potential reasons (the growth of dual-career couples, rapidly changing technology, de-unionization, etc.) so it’s still a mystery why we’ve been changing into an economy where people prefer defined contribution plans to vesting defined benefit plans because they value mobility.

      1. Should’ve known better than to start spouting off anything about economics, which I know precious little about 😉 Thanks for the correction!

        1. No no, it’s a really good point– you just picked up on a longer-running trend. (And I imagine the instability in the job market makes younger folks wish they worked for big stable companies– my BIL jumped at the chance to get a union job after being laid off for 2 years. But that’s not economics.)

  3. If you are 33 going on 80, then I’m right behind you at 23 going on 70. I went away to boarding school the day after my 16th birthday and have not lived at home since. I graduated college a semester early and immediately started a full-time job. I got married at 21 and have now been married for 2 years. We moved to “the big city” about a year into our marriage, where my husband and I both work. We contribute the maximum amount to our IRAs every year, and we are saving in order to put at least a 50% down-payment on a house. I feel like I have very little on common with the stereotypes of “my generation.”

    1. @Laura – exactly. Every generation just contains so many people with so many different personalities. You are clearly very grown up! I know a number of 20-somethings who are also married and/or homeowners already. But I also know, trying to write about social trends, that we look for what we can find to try to understand ourselves better. There certainly has been an increase in kids moving back home after school. People get married later. So there are those data points. But many counter examples too.

  4. I remember reading a bunch of books about generational stereotypes in the late nineties and one of them (though I wish I could remember wish) distinctly left our my birth year – 1982 – when divvying up Gen X & Y. There for a while People magazine or some such liked to run stories about actresses who married young and gasp, had a child before they turned 30. I’d love to know what percentage of my demographic is actually bucking down at a relatively young age. I finished college when I was 20 and got married the following summer. We celebrated our 9th anniversary this week and the two kids watching Dragon Tales behind me seem to suggest that I “missed out” on that prolonged adolescence.

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