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Failure to Launch, Revisited

The shrewdest moment in Laura Bennett’s smart and sobering essay on twentysomething life comes here:

So perhaps it’s not the twentysomethings whose self-obsession is driving this trend. All those stories about emerging adults bear a suspicious resemblance to another overcrowded genre about the worries of a small and privileged class: the parents who continue to invest in and manage their kids into adulthood. “I sometimes imagine that there’s an editor at the Times who’s got a thirtysomething kid that he can’t get out of the house who’s putting his shoes up on the coffee table and eating Cheetos on the couch,” the sociologist Michael Rosenfeld told me.

Robin Henig, for her part, says that she never intended for her book to be a blanket statement about all young people. “We were uncomfortable from the very beginning acting as though we were saying anything about a generation,” she told me. She wanted the title to be something like Cusp or Brink, she added, but her editors insisted on Twentysomething. Her main hope was to address the world of her daughters. “If there’s an emotion I want people to come away with from this book, it’s feeling comforted,” she said. A nearly 300-page professional collaboration between a mother and her twentysomething daughter — designed to reassure the daughter’s peers that everything will be OK — feels a bit like helicopter parenting seen through to its logical conclusion. While some of the anxiety at play here is surely the twentysomethings’, perhaps even more of it belongs to the boomers whose basement couches they are occupying.

Touché. And as Bennett also makes clear — something that never happens in the endless series of New York Times articles about those fascinating young things in Williamsburg — the whole phenomenon of aspiring-artists-working-as-baristas-in-Brooklyn is confined to a tiny percentage of Americans, those in the upper and extreme upper-middle classes. You can only bide your time in a part-time job in some greening part of a big city, writing or painting or designing in your free time, if you have a significant parental subsidy. But the overwhelming majority of young Americans come from families with no spare income to support a finding-yourself period. Would that the media saw fit to notice them, because they have hopes too — but hopes that they can’t nurture for a leisurely decade. It’s good that Laura Bennett reminds us of this.

P.S. I’m the parent of a 20-year-old college sophomore. Check back with me in five or six years to see if I’m part of the solution or part of the problem.

UPDATE: Great comments below. See especially Nick’s.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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