Why we’re radically different from our parents

“Twenty-five years old,” my father said to himself. “That’s how old I was when we had you.”

It was a surreal conversation —  I began to realize just how radically different my generation is from my parents. I had just turned a quarter of a century old, was visiting my parents. My father reminded me that by the time he was 25, he and my mother had not only gotten married but had already brought one of their four children into the world.

Now, I would like to think that I have at least a few accomplishments to my credit, and that I’ve made some steps towards development as an adult — but the contrast cannot be denied. You and I are putting off marriage, having fewer children later on in life, and shifting from job to job as we struggle to become settled into a career. We continue to live as students, with our parents, or as tenants into our early 30s.

And it’s hard to know exactly what to call it. A lot of folks who study this kind of stuff have chosen to call it “emerging adulthood.” I call it living in an in-between kind of place.

Education for the emerging adult typically lasts several years, and increasingly takes the form of an extended undergraduate degree, often along with professional certification, graduate school, and doctorate degrees. Four years into a major economic recession with still-dismal employment numbers, young adults are finding it increasingly necessary to go to school longer in order to land jobs in a lot of technical and professional fields of employment.

This means more time spent in limbo, and that adds to the in-between.

The 21st century has also seen a radical shift in values. Many of our grandparents, having lived through the World Wars and Great Depression, were eager to say “I do,” sign up for a mortgage, and start a large family.

Our generation is not so sure. It’s not that we don’t want these things — we like kids, or at least other people’s kids, or the idea of kids, and having a house would be great — it’s just that we don’t want them yet, or don’t have a long-term career plan that would allow us to keep up with the bills that come with these sorts of things… yet. And, if we are honest with ourselves, the restlessness and hesitancy when it comes to long-term commitments and our penchant for constant movement has in many ways been coupled with a sort of spiritual rootlessness and immaturity.

None of this is likely to come as a surprise. What I am more concerned with is where we go from here.

There is, to be sure, a wisdom that comes with understanding that we (as the old song goes) are “poor, wayfaring strangers.” Despite our best efforts to feel at peace in this world, we will never completely shake that feeling of “not being there yet,” precisely because “there” isn’t tied to a marriage, family, paid-off house, or retirement fund. “There” lies beyond the borders of this world that we are just “travelling through”.


Flickr photo (cc) by mbgrigby