Just when I was prepared to abandon two-Americas analysis for good, I, like Emily, gravitated to the long and wearying Big Story in the New York Times called “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” We’re told what on page two:
Just as adolescence has its particular psychological profile, Arnett says, so does emerging adulthood: identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between and a rather poetic characteristic he calls “a sense of possibilities.” A few of these, especially identity exploration, are part of adolescence too, but they take on new depth and urgency in the 20s. The stakes are higher when people are approaching the age when options tend to close off and lifelong commitments must be made. Arnett calls it “the age 30 deadline.”
Anyone who has followed my writing for the past five years knows that this basket of experiential contingencies and their attendant pathologies — right down to the primacy of possibility and the transformation of all things into mere senses of themselves — was my analytical point of departure from the very beginning. What a glum validation this is. I had just finished reading Elizabeth Wurtzel’s pretty persuasive requiem for teenhood. Now I am told that teenhood is not only still alive but that it was merely a prelude to the next big sociological stage: “emerging adulthood.”
The issue of whether emerging adulthood is a new stage is being debated most forcefully among scholars, in particular psychologists and sociologists. But its resolution has broader implications. Just look at what happened for teenagers. It took some effort, a century ago, for psychologists to make the case that adolescence was a new developmental stage. Once that happened, social institutions were forced to adapt: education, health care, social services and the law all changed to address the particular needs of 12- to 18-year-olds. An understanding of the developmental profile of adolescence led, for instance, to the creation of junior high schools in the early 1900s, separating seventh and eighth graders from the younger children in what used to be called primary school. And it led to the recognition that teenagers between 14 and 18, even though they were legally minors, were mature enough to make their own choice of legal guardian in the event of their parents’ deaths. If emerging adulthood is an analogous stage, analogous changes are in the wings.
I’ve got news for you — they’re already here. I alluded to them earlier in suggesting that the desire to expand marriage to fit any voluntarily formalized love-oriented arrangement is sure to erect a vast new legal and administrative apparatus dedicated to managing the social, economic, and psychological fallout from the (at least partially) voluntary undoing of those arrangements. We can extend that insight, with alarming ease, to the broader situation captured in the too-poetic and too-scientific term “emerging adulthood” — because we are already seeing the outlines of a stark choice come into view.
That choice? On the one hand, a costly, cumbersome, ubiquitous, and intimate legal and administrative system obliged to manage the achievements, setbacks, and failures of a vast class of Americans defined above all by their immaturity; on the other, a partnership between small government and self-government, where a vast class of Americans defined above all by their maturity emancipates policymakers from the technical and therapeutic burdens of the Human Resources state, leaving politics an affordable, modest, focused, and thoroughly grown-up affair.
Down the first road is the death of maturity itself as an intelligible category. Americans will either be relatively younger or relatively older, with separate and shifting emotional, intellectual, social, physiological, and physical ages. Generations will become muddled and increasingly meaningless, with the window of reproductive (to say nothing of non-reproductive) sexual activity expanding to embrace five decades, and the collapse of the authoritative relationship between parents and children replaced by the legal relationship between individuals of all ages and the state entities assigned to manage their pathologically unstable and pathologically chronic personal situations.
We’re not there yet. But, as Ross and Reihan hinted in the most pregnant and evocative portions of Grand New Party, we’re sliding purposefully in that direction, across multiple fronts and in multiple classes of American life. Maturity still means something, and there are still enough Americans who want to fight to preserve the kind of public life and political liberty characteristic of a mature citizenry. Yet there are also plenty of Americans who more or less think that maturity is a quasi-aristocratic luxury or an imposition at odds with a vision of justice in which the state helps ensure that even the worst off are ensured a fair shot at success in their everyday lives. It might be a touch too rhetorical to cast this contrast as our real Two Americas. But on the other hand, it might be the jolt we need to fully understand the cultural changes we face, and what’s at stake in the choices we have to make.
ESFAHANI SMITH > What Is It With My Generation?
HEMINGWAY > Losing the Happiness Wars