Magazine | October 4, 2010, Issue

The Teat Eternal

The New York Times Sunday magazine is where you find nice glossy ads for expensive consumer goods alongside 10,000-word stories on why expensive consumer goods do not make us happy. You often suspect the piece could veer off into Latin halfway through, and no one would notice, except for a few who’d write peevish letters about inaccurate declension. The Internet abbreviation for these pieces is tl/dr: “too long, didn’t read.” Or so the twentysomethings like to say.

As it happens, twentysomethings were the recent subject of a Sunday-mag study, subtitled “Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?” Well, you might have a five-word answer: “Because they don’t have to.” Done! You finished with the Style section? Trade you. But of course there must be more to it than that, or sociologists and anthropologists would have nothing to do. Background: Heretofore we have been content with five basic stages of adulthood, which are finishing up school, not sponging off the ’rents, getting a job, swapping rings with someone who’ll put up with you, and turning out replacement units. Now it seems there might be a new step in human development called “emerging adulthood.” This new stage lasts until you’re 25 and burst from your chrysalis of thrift-store clothing as a fully formed creature who is wearing a tie, and not because it’s Mad Men night at the bar.

Not everyone goes through Emerging Adulthood. The author paraphrases an expert: “It’s rare in the developing world . . . where people have to grow up fast.” Because there are tigers, perhaps. Or gangs of guys with guns. Or teeming cities with people packed into shack-towns and one filthy running stream so full of heavy metals you skip a stone off the water and it makes a clanging sound. Or any of the other conditions that apply to parts of the world where people do not have the option of choosing the neighborhood coffee shop over the chain store because they prefer shade-grown fair-trade beans shipped in hemp sacks and served in recyclable cups printed with cruelty-free ink, or some other intellectual luxury you enjoy when you’re not hungry all the time.

Perhaps longevity has something to do with the new stage. If people expected to kick off while tickling 70, they’d have the pups ASAP so they could have a few years of peace, listening to Sinatra’s later Capitol sessions without competing with Led Zep down the hall. But kids today look around and see Saul Bellow having a child when he’s 107, or something, and figure they can space it out. They hear Time’s Winged Chariot behind them, and it’s a cool ride with a good sound system. Hop on! Floor it! Road trip!

#page#It’s hard to say whether twentysomething culture is a cause of their long anabasis through adulthood or a reflection. There’s something sadly infantile about geek/nerd culture — so much talent devoted to finding ways to make fun of Darth Vader or repurpose early Nintendo graphics into endless parodic permutations. It’s the Super Mario guy as Napoleon in the Jacques-Louis David painting! Awesome! Because, it’s, you know, Mario. It’s all quite clever; the artistic talent you find spilling off the Web every day is astonishing, but the Greatest Generation didn’t spend their 20s remixing Katzenjammer Kids characters. The twentysomethings seem to cling to the near past like a tattered security blanket, filling up the vacant spaces in their culture with obsessive retrofitting of footie-jammy-era pictures. This may also be their strength: Handed a culture that has lost its initiative, traded wit for snark, enthusiasm for suspicion of enthusiasm, conviction for the hipster’s reflexive dismissal, and taught them that everything everyone else knew was wrong — Howard Zinn said so! — they respond by furiously mashing everything up and recombining the parts. Life gave them leftovers; they invented a new cuisine.

But back to the Times piece. Ready? Deep breath: “‘The core idea of classical stage theory is that all people — underscore “all” — pass through a series of qualitatively different periods in an invariant and universal sequence in stages that can’t be skipped or reordered,’ Richard Lerner, Bergstrom chairman in applied developmental science at Tufts University, told me.”

I’m sure he did. So if attenuated proto-adulthood is a new stage, we must readjust society accordingly, right? This will require exquisitely calibrated government programs:

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?

Handing a 21-year-old a pot of money with vaguely described requirements? Toss in a jug of corn likker and the keys to the Buick while you’re at it. This is the rule of all new social models: First you are required to tolerate it, then endorse it, then find it equal to previous norms, then admit its comparative superiorities, and finally, you are required to subsidize it. You can count on one thing: After ten years of federal money spent on helping emerging adults turn into the real thing at age 25, the Times will run a story about the latest research. Turns out “emerging adulthood” lasts until you’re 26.

More money will be needed to find out why.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

James Lileks — James Lileks writes the Athwart column for National Review magazine and is a frequent contributor to the National Review website. He is a prominent voice on Ricochet podcasts.

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

Beyond Sanctions

The U.S.-led financial-sanctions campaign currently under way against Iran is biting, but it isn’t enough. To change the Iranian regime’s nuclear calculus, the administration and the international community need to ...
Politics & Policy

Dim Idea

Arriving late one night into Tokyo, I checked into my hotel room to discover the world’s most complicated toilet. There were hoses and nozzles where hoses and nozzles probably shouldn’t be, ...

Features

Politics & Policy

The Great U-Turn

Admirers and detractors of the United States agree on one point: This country is unusually resistant to the social consensus and set of structures broadly known as “social democracy” or ...
Politics & Policy

Obama’s U.N. Record

Barack Obama will make his second address as president to the opening of the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, and engage in the customary ceremonies, social events, and ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Bliss Was It . . .

The 1924 presidential election was, on the face of it, a snoozer. The major-party candidates were Calvin Coolidge (Republican) and John W. Davis (Democrat). Both were conservative — sensationally so ...
Politics & Policy

Moot Causes

Where did the idea come from that, if a black student studies hard in school, he is “acting white”? Stuart Buck — a Harvard Law graduate who is currently a ...
Politics & Policy

Laws of Thought

On entering the Catholic Church earlier this year, Hadley Arkes explained that he had become convinced that the Church was fundamentally a truth-telling institution. He arrived at this judgment after ...
Politics & Policy

Film: Total Immersion

At times, it can feel as though television’s auteurs are making the movie industry irrelevant. Fifty years after phrases like “idiot box” and “vast wasteland” entered the American vocabulary, the ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

Letters

Ayn Rand, Christian Soldier? “The Greatly Ghastly Rand” (August 30), by Jason Lee Steorts, analyzes Ayn Rand and her writings accurately and not altogether without sympathy. Allow me to add my ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ Soon the Republicans may be able to claim the first nonwhite Speaker of the House. ‐ President Obama’s long-stated view is that his predecessor’s tax cuts for the middle class ...
The Bent Pin

Fed Up

Optimists don’t mind if you eavesdrop on them. They welcome it, in fact, because it helps them spread their fiendish gospel. Here is what the one behind me in the ...
The Long View

“How We Can Help Improve Your Image”

Notes to a PowerPoint presentation to: The Islamic Faith By ImageSpinners, LLC Slide 1: Photo of the Planet Earth from space morphing into ImageSpinners logo. “Who We Are” ImageSpinners, LLC, is a New York–based public-relations ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

GREAT LAKE WINTER A crack in ice will join as well as rend. In every ear that thinks it’s safe from harm, The snap can clearly cause, or not, alarm. But those who hear ...
Athwart

The Teat Eternal

The New York Times Sunday magazine is where you find nice glossy ads for expensive consumer goods alongside 10,000-word stories on why expensive consumer goods do not make us happy. ...

Most Popular

Elections

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
U.S.

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More