I’m a Twentysomething and I’ll Keep Being Me

October 31, 2011

Political Theory

I’ve chosen to write about the “twentysomething” both out of fear and question.  “The twentysomething” is an ascriptive identity used to describe the increasing amount of young adults that have been falling into the same following socioeconomic pattern.

In the New York Times article, “What Is It about 20-Somethings?” this pattern is described as an additional stage in life wherein “young people [are] taking longer to reach adulthood”.  In other words, a twentysomething belongs to an inserted period of time between graduation and adulthood.  The article says, that in order to be considered an adult a young person must have completed five milestones.  Chosen by an unnamed sociologist, these five milestones include; completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having a child. New York Times goes on to debate different interpretations of these milestones, touching on hot topics like gay marriage, single life and education.  However the article does well to skip the debate and quickly reach the ultimate truth that, regardless why or how young people are or are not meeting these milestones, those that do, are taking longer to do so.

In class we have talked about ascriptive and ethical identities; ascriptive being an imposed identity defined by someone else, and ethical inferring a mutual understanding, almost voluntary membership.  Has the “twentysomthing” become a new ascriptive identity as outlined by the New York Times?  Although the famed newspaper did not coin the term, New York Times has reported a general consensus reached by society that this socioeconomic group is alive and growing.  This also begs the question, how much control do we (yes WE) have in becoming, or avoiding, a twentysomething?  Now that the definition has been imposed, can we avoid the vortex waiting outside the doors of every graduation ceremony?

I personally have encountered twentysomethings with increasing frequency as I enter the twenties myself (a short eight months ago).  I have taken notice to siblings, cousins, and friends that all fit this category and I find it to be a very real phenomenon.  But that being said, certain questions arise; why are so many suddenly falling into this pattern?  Do I need to use the E-word (economy)?  Is it necessarily falling that they are doing?

If you have reached this far into the blog post, and like me, are growing concerned about becoming a twentysomething, do not continue reading in hopes of finding reassurance, comfort, or concrete answers to any of the above questions.  As I said earlier, I chose this topic out of fear and question, the two ultimately going hand in hand as it is a fear of the unknown.  However, I do believe that the emergence of the “twentysomething” could be contingent upon several possible socioeconomic factors.

Why are so many falling into this pattern?

The emergence of the “twentysomething” could be contingent upon the steady increase in lifespan, the recent rise in the retirement age, or more generally speaking, the whole economic downturn.  Among these contingent factors, the most important one to address is the

economy.  Is it the downward spiraling economy that is forcing the emerging adults of America to put adulthood on hold?

Following the milestones outlined above, one of the criteria that my fellow post-teens have been failing to meet, is leaving home.  “What Is It About 20-somethings?” uses a picture recently found on the cover of The New Yorker.  This picture (left) depicts a PhD student hanging his degree on the wall of his childhood bedroom and his parents looking on from the doorway.  The increasingly common idea of being overly qualified for a job is a large factor towards keeping many twentysomethings out of employment.  Many are left with the sole option of moving back home to save on expenses and trying to stay afloat while searching for an accessible career.  This, of course, goes hand in hand with failure to meet other milestones; being financially independent, and starting a family.

Is it necessarily “falling” that they are doing?

If we follow the logic that unemployment is a large part as to why these post-teens are returning home, this sheds a negative light on things.  The word unemployment reeks of embarrassment and failure and continues to hold a negative connotation.  However, more and more people are losing jobs and claiming unemployment despite their stellar resumes, qualifications and education.  The same can be said for this new term “twentysomething”.   This ascriptive identity has indirectly been imposed by society through means of social standards and expectation, and because twentysomethinghood is by definition a failure to meet these standards, the same negative connotation is attached.   But does the actual act of being forced to return home to save money and search for a career entail failure?  I would argue that given modern times and the highly competitive job market, being a twentysomething does not entail failure, but rather adaptation to environment and an alternate form of progression into the next stage of life.  The reality, however, is that no one quite knows just yet.  This identity is still young and fresh, and only time will tell whether or not this generation of twentysomethings is a reaction to the economic downturn, or an embodiment of a slower, less efficient generation that forgot to drink their Participatorade.


Jamie Cullum, a pop-jazz-fusion keyboardist from across the pond, wrote a song (above) about being a twentysomething.  In the song Twentysomething, Jamie Cullum acknowledges all the sign posts of this new phenomenon.  It is almost as if the lyrics (inspiration for the title of this post) were written right after he finished reading the New York Times article.  Alas, Mr. Cullum’s work does very little to answer any of our questions, however, his perspective may not be entirely useless.  I feel the lyrics of this song really embody the mindset of most Twentysomethings.  Utter and sheer confusion.  Given that the qualifications of this ascriptive identity demand that you must have both previously succeeded (graduation) and previously failed (unemployed) it is easy to see how anyone would be lost at this stage.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve always had the perception that when I finally graduated and reaped the benefits of my countless all-nighters and hard work, I’d have more than a piece of paper to show for it.  That’s not to say twentysomethings have nothing to show for their work, but I really don’t want to be sleeping  in Toy Story bed sheets  post-grad.  Just sayin.



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6 Comments on “I’m a Twentysomething and I’ll Keep Being Me”

  1. srbarron Says:

    As I watched the video, I just kept nodding my head in agreement with each truth that was illustrated. It’s true that in college we’re working hard to gain knowledge for our future and hopefully come out of school with a job lined up. We’re lucky to be going to a university with an extremely high percentage of seniors who walk the stage for graduation with future employment contracts signed. In 2010, less than 9% of the graduating class was still seeking a job opportunity at the time of graduation while more than half the class was ready to begin their jobs. This day in age, we almost expect to leave college and enter graduate school or enter the workforce immediately to put our undergraduate education to good use. We hope that all our hard work will pay off by the time we’re in our mid-twenties to have a lifestyle that we can sustain ourselves. Although with the depressing economy, jobs are much harder to come across, we as students still long for immediate success. While we pride ourselves on the “Michigan Difference” with the employment stats to back it up, we almost assume that our great education here will set us up for a great career with potential for growth.

    When we compare our outlook for our twenties with past generations, we notice different hopes and goals prevalent at different times. In our grandparents generation, it was more or less assumed that by the time they reached their early twenties, they’d be married with children and maybe not even make it through university. Now, the average age for women is their mid twenties to be married, and men not until almost 29. What cultural changes caused this age and expectations to change drastically? Is it a matter of our identity and pride? Does the financial cost and time and energy burden of schooling now make it more valuable that we tend to invest greater interest in our careers than we used to and less of an urge to start a family so young? Now you wonder, what will the twenties mean to our children and what will society expect of future generations as they complete their education and enter the real world?

  2. benjadler Says:

    I believe that the “twentysomething” is an ascriptive identity based on the fact that it was imposed, in this case, by the New York Times. However, it can also be seen as just a name, like how the name “Indian” is imposed on Native Americans. They did not ask to be identified as such, but since Europeans thought they were in India, the name stuck. I believe the twentysomething fad definitely has to do with the downturn of the economy. Fewer college grads are getting jobs than ever before and they cannot always afford to go back to school; thus creating the twentysomething.

    Jamie Cullum seems to suggest that there is no more need for a classical liberal education, which we discussed at the beginning of the class with the theories of education. Professor Manty discussed some theories, the second one stating that people are educated in college to become good democratic citizens and provide life skills and educational background to the masses. I believe that these life skills are the most important things we learn on the collegiate journey. They provide us with connections – which provide 85% of the jobs in North America (networking) – and skills to succeed and overcome problems we face in the real world.

    So to respond to your final point, the late nights and hard work leading to your attainment of a piece of paper should not be the ultimate sign of your success in college. You should measure the success of your college career by how much you learned to become an informed citizen to learn and discover in the world. The job should rather come from networking and making connections in college. That success is measured by how you will initially fare once you have your diploma.

  3. lukeythekid Says:

    I do not think that the creation of the “twentysomething” is completely a result of the failure of post-grads, but a more lax stance towards moving back in with parents and continuing education. If you look at who this group of twentysomethings is composed of, you realize that they are the more financially well-off students who can afford to wait a bit before starting their careers. Those who graduate college (or don’t for that matter) and are not as wealthy have to get the same kind of lower-paying jobs for which they may be overqualified. They are thrust into the world of adulthood without a choice. Meanwhile, more wealthy students can go all the way through graduate school on their parents’ money and take their time while looking for employment. I have a brother who has a masters degree and wants to become a history teacher but is having trouble finding a position. He will be fine, because he is living at home and not hard-pressed to make the rent on time or support a family.
    Even those who are more independent are still more like kids. I think that by now we have all realized that the college experience is awesome. However, by the time college students start going out to bars etc. they are juniors or seniors, and they want to continue this bachelor’s lifestyle even as they go on to pursue their master’s degree and find employment. College graduates are afraid to leave this behind, and more people are fortunate enough to not have to, creating these twentysomethings. They are not failures, (in fact, many are quite successful) they’re just not ready to let go.

  4. springsteen1 Says:

    Great post. (You spelled career wrong at the off-set, though.)
    This is an interesting idea, and one which was preceded in that NYT article by an op ed in both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, all 3 of which I have hung in my room. And with good reason.

    The lazier our generation becomes, the more solidified the perception of Generation X becomes in the eyes of everyone – and yes, that includes employers.

    So for those of you who like to drink, great; I like my beer too.
    For those of you who like to sleep in, do it on the weekends, maybe a few days a week.
    But for those of you who, like my roommate, sleep 16-17 hours a day, attend only mandatory classes, and work the other 6 (leaving 1-2 hours for eating/showering/etc.) do me a favor and understand that this affects ALL of us. This isn’t about you; it’s about us.

    This concept, and the many presented in both your post above, and the articles / feeds you reference are present and have continued to be present in every generation — that is, every generation has it’s strengths and weaknesses, but the perceptiveness of a generation to recognize both, and to alter the perception of the two (in as much as is possible) to future and coming generations, is what determines and defines who we are as a society.

  5. parijog Says:

    I have been warned by my parents more than once already this semester that I better not be “forming plans in my little head to be moving back home after college.” While I am as turned off by that idea as much as they are, I can’t help but wonder why there is such a stigma around that idea, and mostly from the baby-boomer generation. The conclusion I’ve come to is that when my parents were going off to college, they knew that so long as they didn’t mess up entirely, they were almost guaranteed a well-payed job as reward for their hard work. They went to college in a time when a bachelor’s degree made your resume stand out to employers everywhere. To not find a job in those years meant that you either were’t looking or you didn’t have a heartbeat. Being so far removed from the climate of today’s job economy, my parents have yet to reform their thoughts in regard to twentysomethings.

    Don’t tell my parents, but I am personally all for the idea of taking time between graduation to grow fully into adulthood, whether the break be intentional or not. Too many people rush into their careers without really considering the alternatives and end up with a mid-life crisis resulting from living a life that fell into their laps rather than pursuing a life that is a true match for them as an individual.

    For me, I am planning to attend medical school… eventually. Medical schools have implemented a program where you can defer your acceptance for up to 2 years, so long as you spend that time pursuing objectives that will develop you as a person and as a professional caregiver. I am in full support of this program and will certainly take advantage of that time to pursue interests that are only available to the young, such as travelling abroad and providing service along with organizations such as the Peace Corps or WHO. Twentysomething-hood should be celebrated as an opportunity for further growth, not looked down on as a waste of time.

  6. Phil O'Donnell Says:

    Firstly, I would like to acknowledge how relevant and pertinent the issues discussed in this post are to the majority of undergraduates (the only possible exceptions I can think of are ROTC students or the upper epsilons of our athletic programs…and even this is simply in terms of employment, not experience or all the milestones to be considered an adult) and yet, despite their relevance, there is little consideration given to these issues by the majority undergraduates, myself included. The idea of the twentysomething being almost a new ‘fixed stage or period’ in our view of human life, comparable to adolescence or childhood, is incredibly provocative and I am sure will divide opinion.

    Firstly, despite the fear that this will place me in the minority, I actually agree with the 5 milestones given in the article regarding becoming an adult and hence I don’t consider graduated students to be adults, as defined by those milestones. That’s not to disrespect the efforts of graduated students or the importance of a degree, I just don’t believe that possessing a degree necessarily makes a person an ‘adult’ in terms of responsibility, sustainability or experience. Obviously, there are arguments to counter my acceptance of these milestones as the primary determinant for adulthood, such as the inability of some women to conceive children or that numerous students are financially independent through their college years. Yet, no model is perfect and I believe that, generally speaking for the majority of the population, these milestones provide a reasonably accurate description of an adult.

    Concerning identity, I personally believe that the twentysomething identity is changing from an ascriptive identity (a negative ascription, similar to the claims that students are “lazy” and “party all the time”) to an increasingly ethnic identity, as the older generations are beginning to understand the complexities of the international job market due to the globalization and the increased importance on technology and interdependency of economies. Hence, it takes longer for graduated students to file into their respective employments. This is also obviously emphasized by the current economic climate which has severely constricted the job markets for many sectors and industries, leading to increased competition and thus lower employment rates for graduated students. Despite the aforementioned arguments, the twentysomething identity could also be observed as an ascriptive identity, due to seeming inevitability of graduated students being described as a twentysomething following their graduation, as they are seemingly perceived as being in the stage between adolescence and true adulthood. This is evidenced by the majority of graduated students not having completed or being able to complete the 5 milestones, previously described; for example many will move back home and even more will not have had children

    Moving away from ideas of identity, I personally content that the incorporation of twentysomething stage to the human life, journey etc. is actually a positive thing. It allows graduated students to truly ‘stand on their own two feet’ and ‘find themselves’. These are two phrases often associated with college and the college experience, yet I reject this. I argue that you would struggle to find anyone who seriously believes and can present a coherent argument that states that a 4 year undergraduate study in Ann Arbor is the same as working and living in the ‘real’ world. In this way, it can be seen that the inclusion of the twentysomething in a person’s life is almost the largest learning curve of them all. People are truly on their own; no parents to pay for tuition or send care packages in the mail, graduated students must find their own employment, homes & attempt to start their own families, it is seemingly the final ( and the biggest) challenge on the road to adulthood.

    Hence, it could also be argued that in reality the twentysomething is not a new phenomenon, as seemingly there has also always been a period of transition from college graduation (this is also applicable to high school graduates who don’t attend college) to true adulthood. I personally believe that society is only beginning to take an increased interest in the phenomenon now because we are entrenched in arguably the worst final downturn since the 1930s and hence there is vastly increased evaluation and criticism of economy and society. Also seemingly linked to this is the notion that graduated students cannot seemingly take employment which would be considered below their qualifications, as everyone expects to walk into a career of six figures or more. Hence, as these positions have increasingly begun to decline (if there ever was a market of these for the majority of graduated students) and the number of twentysomethings has grown, especially emphasized by the fact that many of these twentysomethings are from the “top” universities. This is seemingly what has led to the increased media coverage and the phenomenon of the twentysomething in contemporary American society, a phenomenon which I argue has been present in American society for decades and serves to create more independent and experienced adults to lead and govern American society.

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