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The Teat Eternal

by James Lileks

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!

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

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