Suburban Couch Surfing

Mooch Much?

A body greeted me from the foot of the bed. Veins bulged out of his neck and his eyes popped out grotesquely. He was a rubber Halloween decoration, of course, but in that fuzzy moment between dreaming and waking, I wasn’t so sure. After I remembered where I was, I picked up my toiletry bag and headed for the bathroom, where I made myself at home as much as possible. I then helped myself to the refrigerator and turned on my laptop, ready for another day at my friend Josh’s house.

I’d already stayed at his house for close to a week, enjoying his brother’s bed while he was backpacking across Europe. My truck was parked outside, and behind the front seats were my duffel bag and a box of soap, hair gel, basketball shoes, and other necessities. On Wednesday I was due to move to another friend’s house for another week.

A few weeks after I graduated high school, my family moved from the Bay Area to Orange County, at least in theory. I qualify that sentence with ‘in theory’ because I haven’t quite made the transition yet. I’ve managed to spend most of my last two summers staying at my friend’s houses in the Bay Area. In doing so, I’ve become a practiced moocher. So far, at least, I haven’t noticed any grumbling on the part of my generous mooch-ees. I’m lucky to have the kinds of friends that can tolerate me spending extended periods of time in their house, and even luckier their parents have a similar hospitality.

21 and no job? It’s ok mom, Science has a name for me 🙂

But there is something else at work here, a generational phenomenon. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett is a professor who has done a lot of research on the way teens develop into adults. What he is studying can be seen in each of my friends’ houses every summer, and on college campuses across the nation. In fact, if you are reading this, you are probably going through the stage of life at which Arnett has directed his research – a stage he calls emerging adolescence.

The reason I even want to spend time in the Bay Area is that many of my friends come home every summer. This will change as we enter jobs and internships that will further our careers, but we still haven’t settled into those just yet. We still depend largely on our parents, although we are legally adults.

Our parents are able give us this kind of support because they work. Hard. Experiencing the depth of my friends’ parents’ generosity has hammered that notion home for me. Many 18-25 year olds go to school instead of work, and those who do work generally don’t make enough to pay rent, food, gas, insurance, or medical bills. Though no longer minors, we don’t bear many of the responsibilities that adults do.

Are you an adult yet?

In a NY Times article (August 18, 2010) discussing Arnett’s findings, Robin Marintz Henig lays out five checkpoints that mark a teen’s progression into adulthood:

  1. Completing school
  2. Leaving home
  3. Becoming financially independent
  4. Marrying and having a child

While such defined benchmarks are always problematic, they nonetheless seem logical enough to guide a discussion.

The first benchmark, completing school, raises many issues that are at the heart of Arnett’s research into emerging adolescence. A hundred years ago, ‘school’ might have meant as little as learning to read and basic arithmetic. Young people entered the workforce young, and stayed there. Many were faced with each of the rest of the ‘milestones’ to adulthood around decade before our generation generally does.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 had much to do with slowing that progression. It kept those young people out of work in school. This created a new generation: the adolescent. Teenagers were not children anymore, but they were by no measure adults. The meaning of ‘school’ shifted to include twelve grades. Developmental psychologists had to create the term ‘adolescence’ to adequately describe this new stage of youth.

Now that a four -(or six-, or eight-) year education has become more and more crucial in order to secure a well-paying job, the benchmark ‘finishing school’ is difficult to define. Some 18 year olds enter the work force full time directly after high school. However, many individuals choose to remain students until their mid-twenties. This keeps them dependent on their parents, and shelters them from many adult responsibilities. Even if they don’t attend a university, many emerging adolescents live at home to save money before they move out on their own.

What should we call me

I run into this phenomenon every time I try to refer to people my age. We’re not adults, and teenagers doesn’t apply to us anymore, even to individuals who are 18 and 19 year olds. Sometimes I use kids, but maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

Arnett’s proposed term for 18-25 year olds, Emerging Adolescents, works well to capture two traits that he has found to characterize people of this age group. According to his findings, we are optimistic that our future will be bright, but at the same time not entirely sure how it will become so. In some cases, this leads to a dread of the ‘real’ world, and anxiety over learning how it all works.

Sound familiar? If he’s not right on the money, it seems like Arnett is pretty close to what’s going on with people our age. Sometimes it seems like we’re sprinting forwards with our heads down, knowing that there is a destination without knowing how to get there. Sometimes it seems like we’re floating from one wave to the next, craning our necks at every crest to try and figure out where to swim to. And sometimes it’s nice to just kick back and see what’s new on Youtube.

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