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'Emerging Adulthood': Life Stage or Fad?

August 25, 2010

20_somethings A recent New York Times Magazine article by Robin Marantz Henig seems to have struck a chord with twenty-somethings in the non- and for-profit sectors. In the article, "What Is It About 20-Somethings?", Henig asks whether the large number of 18- to 29-year-olds who are not following the traditional path to adulthood -- leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having children -- represents the "dawning of a new life stage" or "just a temporary aberration caused by passing social mores and economic gloom."

According to Clark University psychology professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, twenty-somethings who are not committed to a relationship or a job are "simply acting their age." And the characteristics of that time of life, which Arnett labels "emerging adulthood," include entity exploration, economic instability, a focus on oneself, and feeling "in-between." Those who disagree with Arnett insist that the behavior of today's twenty-somethings does not represent a new life stage because it is neither universal nor essential.

While the debate has been mostly confined to academia, "its resolution has broader implications." Indeed, if the idea of "emerging adulthood" was to gain traction, as the concept of "adolescence" did in the early 1900s, many of our existing social institutions would be forced to adapt. Moreover, the outcome of the debate would directly impact the nonprofit sector. Writes Henig:

The Network on Transitions to Adulthood has been issuing reports about young people since it was formed in 1999 and often ends up recommending more support for 20-somethings. But more of what, exactly? There aren't institutions set up to serve people in this specific age range; social services from a developmental perspective tend to disappear after adolescence. But it's possible to envision some that might address the restlessness and mobility that Arnett says are typical at this stage and that might make the experimentation of "emerging adulthood" available to more young people.

[For example], how about expanding programs like City Year, in which 17- to 24-year-olds from diverse backgrounds spend a year mentoring inner-city children in exchange for a stipend, health insurance, child care, cellphone service and a $5,350 education award? Or a federal program in which a government-sponsored savings account is created for every newborn, to be cashed in at age 21 to support a year's worth of travel, education or volunteer work....

Whether you agree with Arnett’s argument or not, it's clear that more services are needed for twenty-somethings who are struggling to gain their footing in a post-meltdown economy.

In a recent post on her blog, leadership development consultant Rosetta Thurman writes:

I disagree with the idea of an "emerging adulthood" for twenty-somethings. Instead, I believe we're entering into a different kind of adulthood, one that's different from our parents' and one that we do, in fact, get to define (and redefine) for ourselves....

What do you think? What, if any, programs or services do you think the nonprofit sector should be providing for Generation Y -- my generation? And how, if at all, is your organization working to accommodate the Millennials it will depend on in the not-too-distant future? Feel free to share your thoughts and comments below.

-- Regina Mahone

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Posted by Lillyheart  |   August 25, 2010 at 06:30 PM

I am a 22 year old '09 college graduate who spent my summers interning for a variety of non-profits and even managed to snag a youth related nonprofit job (with no benefits, 25 hrs/week, and $9/hr pay, with no raises, and my college degree was absolutely unnecessary) for 8 months (when the nonprofit slashed my job position, among others, entirely) after graduation.

I'm now a shift manager in a service industry business, and that doesn't pay a living wage (nor promise hours, leading to huge budget instability!). So, after my 8 month lease on my apartment was up, I moved back home to save money in order to afford graduate school (I got in, but loan interest rates were too high), my upcoming wedding, and hopefully the upfront costs of whatever my future living situation will be!
The modern economy requires a lot of start up capital that college graduates, unless they have generous (and capable) or wealthy parents, don't have access too. My rent was only $600(utilities included) a month, but my application fee, deposit, and utility set up fees meant I had to have nearly $2500 up front. That's a lot of money if you make $9/hr! And then it takes 90 days after move out to get that money back, never mind somehow having to front a similar amount again if you decide to move to a cheaper location. So yeah, we don't want to make definite decisions because we don't want to ruin our credit histories for 7-10 years because of "series of unfortunate events" that are increasingly common. As much as I'd love to take that unpaid internship that could open amazing doors, I'd also love to pay my car insurance (mandatory for getting to work in areas of low public transportation) health insurance, and have more money for personal expenditures at 22 than the allowance I had in 8th grade. I don't think that's incredibly selfish. I'm not saying I'm above eating ramen and potatoes, but if I'm only guaranteed an income of $800-$1000 a month, and I'm already in debt by the time I pay minimal rent, health insurance, car insurance, and cell phone bill, I'm not going to have money for dog food, much less ramen! And I'm amazingly lucky to have never owned a credit card, have low car insurance, a low cell phone bill (my parents only have me pay my "family plan" cost addition), and to have graduated without debt (although I will be assuming the $17,000 my fiance has accumulated from his 3 degrees. His current PhD stipend will barely support him.) Getting married now would mean a host of financial consequences which would destroy our attempt to create a stable foundation!

Many of my friends and I want, more than anything, the chance to prove ourselves. We worked hard in high school, got scholarships to top colleges, graduated as members of honor societies, sororities and had high levels of leadership level involvement. And we are taking contract jobs (one friend has had 3 in the last year and a half since graduating: Sunoco, Microsoft, and Ernst&Young. She's obviously intelligent, but can't find a job paying more than $14/hr with no benefits!), being entrepreneurs, staying at our high school and college service/retail jobs, and relying heavily on friends and family during this economy. Of course we're restless- we have ambitions higher than "designing" (stocking with style) the doughnut store display every morning!

Today's young adults, as far as my crowd goes, are growing conservative in the "chances" they can take, because it seems like ruin is always one step away. Is it financially prudent to spend all your savings (say, $3000) moving across the country for a job that might not last in a city without a personal community or family support net? It wouldn't make sense for me to leave the state (unless I could live with a relative) for a job with twice my current income unless I knew that in a year I'd still have that job- and what employer will make that promise? I have to fully expect to be thrown under the bus at every stop, because that's what we've seen and lived.

As far as "non-profit involvement" goes, I follow my favorite non-profits and nonprofit news through twitter & rss feeds. I enjoy drawing posters for an event on Saturday Afternoons (but hate it when I sign up to volunteer and sit around doing nothing!). My friends and I seat ourselves on local committees and work for the movements we love. (One committee I was on this year put on an event that raised thousands for a local Ronald McDonald House. Unfortunately, despite the hard work& even set up, I couldn't afford a ticket ($100 is nearly 10% of my monthly salary) to actually go.) I go to the free local Center for Non Profit Management events, but very few are ever designed for those not on nonprofit boards.

When it comes to the nonprofit world, I've time and time again been told that I am useful for warm-body volunteer work (which, I do, and I enjoy. But I can't make a living off of it!), but not much else. I'd love even grunt work, as long as my ambition was recognized (even in non-financial ways, such as professional development opportunities or quite simply, basic respect that I am a competent employee).

Especially in the varied nonprofit world, there is absolutely no "this is what you need to do" information. We all know the educational/career path for those seeking to be accountants. But nearly every non-profit person I've met "fell into this job", or never sought to be both highly passionate about the particular event and competent in their professional duties. Most of it seems like dumb luck. I've had multiple interviews that ended well, only to receive letters and emails that said something along the lines of "Gosh, we'd love to hire you, but we're just going to hold off and wait out our financial situation, or decided we just don't need this position right now, or even though we said entry level, we found someone with 6 years of experience... sorry! We'll keep you in mind, and thanks again!". The current staff at my previous job have all been there at least 10 years. It's rather hard to break into that as an outside leader unless you have an outstanding organizational culture.

I can't speak for everyone, but I know this: Nonprofit orgs need to offer us real career opportunities. They need to offer decent wages, good training, professional development, and expect a lot out of us (and clearly communicate those expectations!). My favorite part of my current job is going home and realizing I had to sweat (mentally or physically) and that I did a good job. Everyone enjoys feeling like they created something good, whether it be a panini or a grant proposal. But we don't enjoy feeling taken advantage of, knowing that we will never enjoy any of the fruits of our hard work in terms of respect, finances, or less tangential benefits.

Posted by Mazarine  |   August 30, 2010 at 06:40 PM

I agree with Lilyheart.

Most of the 20-somethings I know want nothing more than a stable job that gives them benefits.

People are putting off marriage and families because wages haven't kept up the pace of inflation and cost in the last 30 years.

Seriously, can you really say that 20-somethings are not stepping up when my 23 year old brother, working 40 hours a week in the only job he could find, can't make enough money to live on his own?

People who say millenials can't grow up are not taking responsibility for the people they are focusing on. I have 22 cousins, many of whom are in their 20s now, and they all want to change the world, work hard, have families.

But they are being nickeled and dimed by our nonprofit world, as well as by NAFTA and trade policies with the world, where labor can be had so cheaply elsewhere, that goes for programming as well as manufacturing, publishing, etc, so their wages here stagnate or go down. They are working hard to get skills to make themselves irreplaceable, but until we fix our broken trade policies and increase the national minimum wage, it doesn't look like people will be able to find stability.

Until then, the best policy is working for yourself.


Posted by Regina Mahone  |   September 03, 2010 at 12:38 PM

Nonprofit orgs need to offer us real career opportunities. They need to offer decent wages, good training, professional development, and expect a lot out of us (and clearly communicate those expectations!).

While I completely agree with you, I'm hesitant to shake my fist at the nonprofit sector for its low wages. As Robert Reich points out in an op-ed printed in today's New York Times, the top 1 percent of American families take home (or took home in 2007) 23.5 percent of the nation's total income. I think many nonprofits don't offer better wages because they don't have it to give. Nevertheless, that is no excuse for an organization to "take advantage" of its volunteers or employees.

There are, however, a lot of really great nonprofits out there with decent wages and benefits -- I hope you don't give up on the sector just yet.

Thank you for sharing your story, Lillyheart.

Posted by Regina Mahone  |   September 03, 2010 at 12:56 PM

Thanks, Mazarine, for sharing your thoughts.

Do you think nonprofits unable to meet the needs of Gen Y in today's economy should take responsibility "for the people they are focusing on" and offer alternative services? If so, what might some of those programs look like?

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