The 20-Something Dilemma

Today's young people are overly scripted and afraid of failure, traits reinforced by many parents and by the college admissions process, writes the 20-something Tim Henderson.


October 21, 2010

With large numbers of 20-somethings moving back in with their parents, taking unpaid internships, or bouncing from job to job seemingly without direction, psychologists, sociologists, journalists and parents have been asking the question, “Why are 20-somethings taking so long to grow up?” The New York Times Magazine recently devoted an 8,000-word cover article to this question. It used to be that by the time they reached their early twenties, Americans were beginning to settle down, work a steady job, and lead a relatively stable life, but that is no longer the case.

For most of the 20-somethings I know, which is an admittedly small group of graduates from some of the country’s best four-year colleges and universities, life’s third decade offers a disquieting mix of uncertainty and promise. Faced with friends scattering across the globe after graduation, the high stakes and complexity of modern life, a tough job market, admonitions to enjoy youth to the fullest, and a dearth of self-knowledge, many 20-somethings find themselves asking, “Now what?” For the first time the life script that so many have followed does not have a next page.

These feelings of uncertainty, hope, and confusion are, in part, rooted in adolescence and the over-structuring of American childhood. Amid the standardized tests, sports practices, extracurricular activities, and A.P. classes, there is little room for the self-exploration that used to characterize adolescence. Middle and high school seem to be less about discovering or deciding who one is and more about reaching the next benchmark. Today’s students know more factoids than previous generations, but they also know less about themselves. It is therefore no surprise that more American high school graduates than ever are taking a gap year to explore the world outside the academic structure.

The rigid scripting of childhood and adolescence has made young Americans risk- and failure-averse. Shying away from endeavors at which they might not do well, they consider pointless anything without a clear application or defined goal. Consequently, growing numbers of college students focus on higher education’s vocational value at the expense of meaningful personal, experiential, and intellectual exploration. Too many students arrive at college committed to a pre-professional program or a major that they believe will lead directly to employment after graduation; often they are reluctant to investigate the unfamiliar or the “impractical”, a pejorative typically used to refer to the liberal arts. National education statistics reflect this trend. Only 137 of the 212 liberal arts colleges identified by economist David Breneman in his 1990 article “Are we losing our liberal arts colleges?” remain, and an American Academy of Arts and Sciences study reported that between 1966 and 2004, the number of college graduates majoring in the humanities had dwindled from 18 percent to 8 percent.

Ironically, in the rush to study fields with clear career applications, students may be shortchanging themselves. Change now occurs more rapidly than ever before and the boundaries separating professional and academic disciplines constantly shift, making the flexibility and creativity of thought that a liberal arts education fosters a tremendous asset. More importantly, liberal arts classes encourage students to investigate life’s most important questions before responsibilities intervene and make such exploration unfeasible. More time spent in college learning about the self and personal values means less floundering after graduation. Despite the financial or, in some cases, immigration-status reasons for acquiring undergraduate vocational training, college still should be a time for students to broaden themselves, to examine unfamiliar ideas and interests, and to take intellectual risks. Otherwise, students graduate with (now dubious) career qualifications but little idea of who they are or who they want to be.

Combine this confusion with what is for many the first confrontation with life’s nonlinear, organic nature, and it is no surprise that 20-somethings are taking so long to grow up. Life stretches before them, endlessly promising, challenging, and exciting but simultaneously daunting, terrifying, and enigmatic as a single preordained path suddenly splits into myriad unknowable routes. And after watching their parents – typically both of them – work ever longer hours in an increasingly around-the-clock and competitive world, 20-somethings wonder whether their 20s will be the best time of their lives or will be spent doggedly climbing the career ladder. This period has therefore become a sort of extended gap year, a time to get whatever it is out of one’s system before the demands of graduate school, career, and family become inescapable. It may be an error of youth to believe that life ceases to be pleasurable after marriage, financial independence, or entering a profession, but it is an error that many young Americans make.

Our country is rearing a group of intelligent young men and women with lots of skills and enthusiasm but little self-knowledge. Unable or unwilling to deviate from the script during childhood and college, we have shifted to early adulthood the self-exploration that used to occur earlier in life and used to be the purpose of a liberal arts education. The resulting economic, psychological, and social strain on parents and kids is tremendous.

Only by breaking down the rigid structure of the middle-class American childhood can this situation be rectified. Children’s lives must cease to be packed with extracurricular activities, sports leagues, music lessons, and innumerable other résumé-building pursuits. In order to make time for exploration during high school, the influence of the college admissions process should be limited to the junior and senior years.

Because so much of the scripting of American childhood is driven by what the public thinks selective colleges and universities want, these institutions must reform and explain admissions. They must take the lead in ramping down the current admissions frenzy, which discourages high school students from taking the kind of productive risks that foster creativity and self-knowledge. And colleges and universities should require underclassmen to take a wide range of courses, including a heavy dose of the humanities, before declaring a major and should encourage students to delay such a declaration for as long as possible.

Finally, we all -- high schools, colleges, parents, teachers, and students -- need to change our attitude toward taking risks and learning from failure. These are not dangers to be avoided but opportunities to achieve and to grow through invaluable and formative experiences. Only by mandating broad exposure in and out of the classroom and encouraging the willingness to deviate from the script can we help high school and college students decide who they are and who they want to be. If we stay the course, we will continue to get the 20-somethings we are asking for.


Timothy Henderson graduated from Middlebury College in 2010 and is now on the staff of the Green Mountain Valley School, in Waitsfield, Vt., where he coaches young ski racers and teaches SAT prep classes.


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