20-Somethings and Bad Social Science in the Neoliberal Era
In the title of an 8000-word article in the New York Times Magazine (August 18th), Robin Marantz Henig asks: “What Is It About 20-somethings? Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?” The questions and answers are based on research by Clark University psychologist Jeffrey Arnett that has provided the foundation for the recently-popularized “developmental stage” of “emerging adulthood.” Arnett’s fame and fortune began with a “seminal” 2000 article in American Psychologist. “Emerging adulthood” is now for all practical academic purposes certified as a standard stage of human development, with its own body of research and yearly conferences.
My major contentions in addressing this research are three-fold: First, beyond its purely descriptive efforts (which, based on this article, are nevertheless inadequate), this is pretentious social science with no sound theoretical basis in human development, psychology, or sociology. Second, it is bad social science precisely because it avoids what might make it plausible and useful social science—a consideration of the economic neo-liberalization of post-adolescence over the past three to four decades. Third, proposing “emerging adulthood” as another ever-so-profound and “vital” stage of youth’s emotional and psychological development serves to de-politicize what is ultimately a “stage” of life that, if anything, has been shaped by ruthlessly political and volitional elite ideologies and policies.
Arnett claims in his 2000 article that socially, “the years of emerging adulthood are characterized by a high degree of demographic diversity and instability, reflecting the emphasis on change and exploration. It is only in the transition from emerging adulthood to young adulthood in the late twenties that the diversity narrows and the instability eases, as young people make more enduring choices in love and work.” Henig describes the psychology of emerging adulthood as “identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between and a rather poetic characteristic (Arnett) calls ‘a sense of possibilities’.”
Even in the sorry ideological tradition of structural-functionalist American social science, this is opaque, slippery, and self-referential stuff. “Emerging adulthood” is apparently socially characterized only by the diversity of its cohort—a dead giveaway that it is “characterized” by nothing at all. But if we wish to look more closely at the unmentionable economic and class contexts of 20-somethings, we would surely find patterns of behavior reflecting fundamental social divisions—all of which, in different but systematic ways, have been historically shaped by neoliberalism in general and are now being shaped by the current recessionary neoliberal economy in particular.
But in “respectable” academic social science, economics provides a background that is assumed to be technologically-determined, inevitable, and liberally ameliorative—ultimately in the service of social and emotional progress for everyone. Such “progress” is therefore routinely celebrated with the academic proclamation of a “new” developmental stage—emotionally, psychologically, and ultimately socially triumphant by the time its captive and confused cohorts have stumbled into their thirties.
In the real world, since the 1970s the choices of the third decade of life have been profoundly influenced by the same neoliberal forces that have shaped our economy and society, resulting in increased disparities in wealth and income, stagnant income for the bottom 80% of the workforce, structurally high unemployment, and decreased public support in a variety of areas. The myths of “equal opportunity” aside, class and race divisions within this cohort are no different than for any other, and have also increased with time.
But how might we specifically characterize neoliberal social policies and their relation to the plight of a diverse cohort of perhaps 50 million American youth between the ages of 18 and 30? To use concrete and descriptive terms: our children are told (mendaciously) that they must compete with those in other country for technological skills; schools are standardized and marketized, but remain highly unequal; there are winners and losers in the competition for higher educational opportunity, largely determined by their parents’ backgrounds and incomes; all students are told that more “higher” education is the key to their futures, at whatever level, and by (highly profitable for lenders) debt if necessary—more loans and less outright government support are available; fewer entry-level jobs are available to graduates, and at stagnant wages; the most common options for the less privileged are unemployment, underemployment, minimum wage jobs, prison, and the military; children of the middle class compete for service jobs while well-paid manufacturing jobs are outsourced or eliminated—and not on the basis of workers’ comparative skills; during their undergraduate and graduate student years, the relatively privileged are encouraged—for the sake of career advancement—to provide cheap semi-professional labor in the form of assistantships, internships, and other “volunteer” exercises, such as the elitist Teach for America; and of course, the absence of public healthcare and the shortage of good jobs with benefits mean that in spite of recent legislation that allows parents to insure their children until age 26, many are without decent health coverage.
In general, what we have here is a youthful, healthy, highly-skilled, and economically desperate pool of surplus labor. This is to the benefit of corporations, educational institutions, NGOs, the low-paid service sector, the military, and the prison-industrial complex. Of course, in spite of the global spirit of desperate competition, winners and losers remain predictable in aggregate on the basis of their economic backgrounds, albeit with notable exceptions that reinforce the rule. All of this constitutes the so-called “meritocracy” in the neoliberal era.
I will conclude with several comments on the alleged psychological and developmental aspects of the postulated stage of “emerging adulthood.” In her Times article, Henig writes: “The 20s are like the stem cell of human development, the pluripotent moment when any of several outcomes is possible. Decisions and actions during this time have lasting ramifications. The 20s are when most people accumulate almost all of their formal education; when most people meet their future spouses and the friends they will keep; when most people start on the careers that they will stay with for many years. This is when adventures, experiments, travels, relationships are embarked on with an abandon that probably will not happen again.” These observations are obvious at one level, and doggerel at another. The claim that choices and behavior of those in their 20s are more fundamental than early childhood on one hand or immutable economic circumstances on the other is not only empirically unsupported, but lacking in any useful theoretical formulation, credible or otherwise.
Similarly, during the heyday of the so-called “youth culture” of the 60s, psychologists and sociologists—whether supportive or critical of these developments—had little of lasting theoretical value to contribute regarding the nature of human development during the stage of life that has been labeled “youth.” They had, for the most part, little to offer in illuminating the material and political contexts of the “youth culture” that was then shaped by affluence, alienation, political repression, war, idealism, and creativity. The fundamentals were to be found not in universal “human development” but in political circumstances, and in human moral nature at any level of development.
Nevertheless, it is understandable that at that historical juncture some thinkers projected onto this stage of life and its sensational and prolific culture their hopes for an evolved human consciousness. It was, I would suggest, more than academic opportunism, but the uneven intellectual legacy of Marx, Freud, Dewey, and others.
I wouldn’t say the same for the promoters of “emerging adulthood.” It has the shabby, shallow feel of the historical penchant of American social scientists for denying the reality of social conflict and vindicating the status quo, while offering a vision of “human development” that is superficially diverse but deeply conformist and aridly decontextualized. In this emphasis on the “passage” of 30-year-olds “getting on” with their lives, we find a peculiarly academic form of reactionary elitism amidst the harsh economic vicissitudes of the neoliberal era. Predictably, it comes without a word about the problem and prospects of political consciousness among youth themselves in our so-called liberal democracy.
David Green (email@example.com) lives in Champaign, IL.