Twenty-Somethings and the Self-Directed Life

Does the following sound like the description of a healthy culture?

One-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year. Forty percent move back home with their parents at least once. They go through an average of seven jobs in their 20s, more job changes than in any other stretch. Two-thirds spend at least some time living with a romantic partner without being married. And marriage occurs later than ever. The median age at first marriage in the early 1970s, when the baby boomers were young, was 21 for women and 23 for men; by 2009 it had climbed to 26 for women and 28 for men, five years in a little more than a generation.

This description of twenty-somethings — taken from a lengthy New York Times piece on our current college and immediate post-college generation — sounds like a single-paragraph description of the textbook self-directed life. It is a life of postponed responsibility, sexual and relational experimentation, and career aimlessness. It is a life centered around questions such as: “Am I happy? Am I fulfilled? Am I satisfied?” It is a life that fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the world. For the upper classes, it is a Disneyland life — an artificial reality created by the hard work of others. For those who struggle with poverty, it is the first step down a road that leads to the permanent underclass. It is a life that flies in the face of all that we know sustains a nation, an economy, and a culture.

Has there ever been a successful culture characterized by such behaviors amongst its young adults? Some might say that Europe is one such culture, but when Mohammed is becoming the most popular boy’s name in key European capitals, I’m not quite sure that Europe is proving that it can sustain its continental indulgences.   

This is not to say that our twenty-somethings are uniquely selfish. In fact, they’re learning the lessons taught all too well by their parents — parents who in many cases either lack the moral will to teach their children core civilizational values (after all, it’s important to be your kid’s friend!) or have done an outstanding job modeling selfishness in their own lives. It strikes me that one reason this generation increasingly favors same-sex marriage is near-complete internalization of the notion that life is at its core a quest for connection and happiness.  

Finally — and I know that I’m a broken record on this point – but any discussion of the college generation wouldn’t be complete without noting the small minority of citizens who have completely forsaken the “delayed adulthood” of their peers and volunteered to fight what is now almost a nine-year war. While their peers explore “gap years,” move home with their parents, and hop from job to job until they find one that is “just right” and makes them happy and fulfilled, this generation of soldiers, deploys, fights, recovers, and deploys again. A country that can produce more than 3 million such men and women at any given time is still a great country indeed.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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