Posted by: bkivey | 16 October 2010

School of Soft Knocks

The Fall 2010 issue of the Oregon State alumni magazine features an interview with sociologist Dr. Rick Settersten in which he advocates for a more gradual assumption of adult responsibilities than has traditionally been the case. Dr. Settersten is of the opinion that a more gradual entrance into adulthood is beneficial to the individual and to society. While I agree that such a course of action is attractive to the individual – who wouldn’t want to perpetuate childhood? – I don’t agree that this trend benefits society as a whole or is even particularly good for the person.

Because I come from a generation, perhaps the last generation, in which the expectation was that once one reached their majority they had better be doing one of three things: attending a post-secondary institution, working, or in the military; I am biased against the idea that it’s acceptable to live with one’s parents after high school unless one is furthering their education, but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise. However, I don’t find the arguments for this position convincing.

My own experience was of starting full-time work at 16 while still in high school, moving out of the house shortly after graduation, and working two jobs throughout most of my 20’s. I ran a business at 19 and moved by myself to a large city on the other side of the country without a job or contacts. I didn’t attend a post-secondary school until I was in my late 20’s, and even then I worked full-time and paid my way, as I have every time I’ve attended school. My sibling’s experience has been similar, and among my peers in high school the very few who didn’t move out of the house were charged for rent and expenses by their parents.

The usual argument for delayed entry into adulthood is that young people should be allowed and encouraged to take their time in deciding what they want to do with their lives in a low-pressure environment. While it is certainly nice to have that opportunity, the fact is that that option is only available to reasonably well-to-do folks in wealthy societies. Even in those societies most people who aren’t going to school are forced to find some gainful employment such that they can pay living expenses. In less wealthy societies there is significant social pressure for young people to start paying their way or get married, at any rate to get out of the house so their parents don’t have to feed them.

Advocates for the ‘soft entry’ option into adulthood cite a number of contributing factors to explain this societal change, including higher educational requirements and fluctuating economic circumstances. To their credit proponents do mention changing  parental expectations, but I don’t think that they give enough weight to this factor. As we know from the Third Rule of Management, people work to expectations. I suspect that sociologists don’t weight parental expectations too heavily because they don’t want to seem to be ‘blaming’ the parents if a child is unprepared to accept adult responsibilities on reaching their majority. A child’s maturity is very much a reflection on the parents and in academic circles it’s tres gauche to seem judgemental. One might say that it’s the professional responsibility of an academic sociologist to analyze societal trends and I would agree, but when those same professionals advocate for a particular position, they lose credibility as professional analysts.

Arguing that people should be encouraged to make a gradual transition to adulthood points to the major flaw in the concept, and that is the delay in discarding the child mindset. I would argue that the primary indicator of adulthood is not the assumption of adult responsibilities but the adoption of an adult outlook. Children are self-centered individuals with a large sense of entitlement and much of parenting is teaching the child that they are not the center of the universe and that their wants are perhaps not conducive to the greater good and maybe not even good for the child. To be an adult is to accept responsibility: for oneself, for others, and for the society in which one lives.

It seems that creating an environment in which the acceptance of an adult attitude is delayed well into a person’s 20’s is not particularly beneficial to the maintenance and growth of a functional society. Without the tempering of childish emotions and wants people are going to make decisions based primarily on those most basic of questions: “What’s in it for me?” and “Does it feel good?” The child knows only infinite want and a craving for attention, the adult understands that resources are finite and that they are not the center of creation. The more a society bases decisions on the wants of the child without respecting the limits of the adult the more dysfunctional the society becomes.

 The contradiction is that the attitude that young people need additional time to mature seems to be reserved for those who attend universities. It may well be that the mechanic who fixed the airplane you board or the electrician who wired your house was younger than your 20-something graduated-from-college living-at-home child. Why do we want to insulate those who are allegedly the most intellectually capable from the rigors of adulthood? Telling young people that it’s acceptable to delay maturity without expectations is a corrosive attitude for a society to adopt. It is, in the words of Michael Gerson, “The soft bigotry of low expectations.” We should expect much more from those whom we expect to lead society in the future.

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