At Work

Why the Conversation about Young Adults Applies to Everyone

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A mid-life crisis is no longer the center of attention, because a quarter-life crisis has emerged onto the scene. Everyone over the age of thirty seems to talk about a mid-life crisis, so why aren’t we discussing the parallel topic with twentysomethings? I believe that there are two significant reasons why. In my previous article I mentioned why the twentysomething years really matter. Today I want to talk about why they matter to everyone.

A Conversation for Everyone

In her TED Talk, clinical psychologist Meg Jay points out the significance of talking directly to twentysomethings, mainly that there are approximately 50 million young adults currently in their twenties living in the United States. That’s approximately one-sixth of the population. To drive the point home, Jay asked the audience to raise their hand if they were in their twenties; a few hands went up. With those hands still up, she asked the rest of the audience to raise their hands if they worked with twentysomethings, love someone who is in their twenties, or are “losing sleep over twentysomethings.” As you can imagine, almost every hand was up, nearly every person in the room could benefit from this conversation.

As Jay points out, one hundred percent of the future population needs to be involved “if you consider that no one’s getting through adulthood without going through their twenties first.”

When thirty-somethings and beyond discuss what twentysomethings should be doing, we do so to satisfy our own intellectual curiosity or to justify our own life stories. When we discuss with twentysomethings, however, what they ought to be doing, we help them avoid hardship. We enrich their lives. In other words, let’s learn to speak directly to twentysomethings about what they ought to be doing in this decade of their lives to set themselves up for a long, successful, and happy life.

This Is Not About Millennials

To be clear, this is not just about Millennials. This is about twentysomethings. Studying generations, generational differences, and how to parent, manage, or inspire people of different generations can be fascinating and useful work. It’s sort of a trend at the moment as well.

As I write this series, twentysomethings consist of the very last of the Millennials and the first of Gen Z. Soon they will be exclusively Gen Z, and in the not-too-distant future, they will begin to be the Alphas (born 2010 through to the present). And hopefully the content of this series will still be relevant to all of them.

This is because, despite what you read online, people who hail from different generations are not fundamentally different forms of humans. Many content creators on the Internet will claim to be able to tell you how to market to Millennials, manage Gen-Zs, and secure funding from Baby Boomers. The human condition hasn’t changed for thousands of years of civilization. Why, then, would anyone believe that it has changed so drastically in our lifetimes that people born twenty years apart cannot understand one another?

Emerging Adulthood

This is the idea of “emerging adulthood,”a term coined by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a psychology professor at Clark University. According to an article in the New York Times, Arnett is “leading the movement to view the 20s as a distinct life stage” based on the results of a study he led in the 1990s. Robin Marantz, the author of the New York Times article, described the study, saying,

More than 300 interviews and 250 survey responses persuaded Arnett that he was onto something new. This was the era of the Gen X slacker, but Arnett felt that his findings applied beyond one generation. He wrote them up in 2000 in American Psychologist, the first time he laid out his theory of “emerging adulthood.” According to Google Scholar, which keeps track of such things, the article has been cited in professional books and journals roughly 1,700 times. This makes it, in the world of academia, practically viral…

Arnett’s work built on the research from a generation prior, where psychologists studying the Baby Boomers first started to differentiate between childhood and young adulthood. This work was led by Kenneth Keniston of Yale University who was trying to understand why twentysomethings in the 1970s weren’t settling down like their parents did at the same age.

This field of experts, led by Keniston and Arnett, have taken it upon themselves to label the behaviors they observe in young people and categorize them accordingly. This is no surprise because humans always love taxonomies. However, the important conclusion that jumps out to me in this research is that the same observations have been made of all recent generations—of Baby Boomers by Keniston, of Gen Xers by Arnett, and of Millennials by apparently everyone. That should be a good indication that this isn’t a phenomenon unique to any generation. Instead, something happens to young adults when they are in their twenties, and each generation experiences and reacts to it with slight differences.

Will A Quarter-Life Crisis Change?

A college student recently asked me, how might this concept of the quarter-life crisis change to the next generation or over the next decade? My best guess is that it won’t change very much over the next decade or for the next generation. The aimlessness and unrest identified by Keniston and Arnett of the past, and what I will define as a quarter-life crisis in this series, aren’t going away any time soon.

What we are going to discuss in the following articles is going to address the human condition, and that transcends the generational differences that separate us from one another. 

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