Many of us are familiar with the prototypical overscheduled child, that mainstay of suburban satire who started cello lessons before she learned how to crawl, took her first PSAT prep class when she was 12 and spent last summer leading a starving-child rescue team in Mali. All this, of course, was forced on her by her overbearing parents, who worried that an insufficiently rigorous fifth-grade program might jeopardize little Ashley’s chances at Stanford and, inexorably, lead her to a career at McDonald’s.
Much has been said about the problems associated with children’s hectic lives – nobody plays outside anymore, people don’t read for pleasure, etc. – and I share these laments. There is one possible benefit, though: Maybe society’s high expectations for its children are resulting in a generation of highly organized, responsible people who are used to achieving adult levels of excellence at extremely young ages. Have today’s young people already turned into their parents?
Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Another dominant cultural trend, also exhaustively studied and lampooned, is how these highly impressive children, after earning their Emory or Washington University degrees, are taking a sharp turn off the road to adulthood. Ashley might jump at the opportunity to spend her junior year (or, since this is 2006, her third of about five) on an archaeological dig in Coronastan, but by the time she’s 28, she probably still won’t have a permanent job.
And, if she’s like 63 percent of 2004’s college graduates, she’s planning to live with her parents. Dave Barry once wrote that while the Greatest Generation could lay claim to weathering the Great Depression, winning World War II and making America the richest and most powerful country the world has ever seen, the Baby Boomers have managed only one significant accomplishment: They didn’t move back in with their parents. Well, today’s young adults haven’t been able to match the Boomers’ record.
Clearly, something is happening to us between the nothing-is-more-important-than-getting-into-Duke stage and the nothing-is-more-important-than-living-it-up stage. Even our most successful young people seem to value childhood more than adulthood. Why does Matchbox Twenty want the real world to just stop hassling me? Why does John Mayer, wishing he was six again, want his life to be more like 1983?
There has to be a reason why people who are committed achievers when they’re 14 shun commitment and achievement when they’re 24. Possibly, with modern childhood not resembling a extended idyll nearly as much as a taxing slog to the next status symbol, youths are getting burned out way too early. If childhood no longer features freedom from an often bewildering array of responsibilities, maybe young adults are simply searching for the peaceful time they didn’t get to enjoy when they were 12.
But privileged adult-olescents trying to perfect childhood at 25 are only part of the story. Satire aside, society tends to approve of overzealous, Yale-centric parenting. Once the kids leave college, though, society also tends to approve of protracted, 13-to-30 adolescence. Sure, there’s plenty of hand-wringing about the irresponsibility involved in leading “Sex and the City” lifestyles, but that’s as far as it goes. This tacit approval must stem at least in part from the fact that young adults prop up the economy by purchasing tremendous amounts of stuff, but I hope that’s not the whole story.
If society wanted to encourage 22-year-olds to embark expeditiously on a career, get married and have children, there would be large subsidies for law, medical and business school tuition, benefits for hiring graduates of American universities instead of outsourcing jobs and expanded child tax credits large enough to actually make a dent in the substantial costs of raising large families.
A pro-responsibility agenda would certainly include high school and college classes on budgeting, intelligent use of credit, how taxes work and the power of compound interest. It would also discourage parents from enabling their adult children’s excessive live-for-today behavior by bailing them out repeatedly.
Personally, I think society is on the wrong path in both areas: I’d prefer that the social norm were a less hectic childhood and a more traditional adulthood. At the very least, we need to figure out how to live a more balanced life at both 14 and 24, because the prevailing winds at both ages are unhealthy.
Kaplan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.