One of the very few upsides to being unemployed is that you’re able to dedicate a good chunk of your time to catching up on your reading. For me this consists of a steady diet of blogs, online magazines, CBC News, and whatever daily free content the Globe and Mail and the New York Times publishes online. I’ve been unemployed for about 5 months now and so when not obsessively cruising job sites, I indulge in a little self-pity which tends to lead me to asking myself, “What is it about me that’s so unemployable?” I have a degree, I have relevant work experience, and yet nothing. Before an interview I practice answers to common interview questions with family or friends, I chose my outfits carefully the night before and I make sure to always bring with me standard interview accessories, i.e. copy of resume, references, notepad, pens and a company/ organization “cheat sheet” ( this is a sheet of information I make about each company/organization to study before I go into an interview) and still my phone doesn’t ring.
While remaining jobless for a long period of time can do a number on your self-esteem, for me, what’s making unemployment nearly unbearable is how it is forcing me to push back my academic, professional and financial goals. These delays or setbacks are frustrating because they are effectively prolonging a period of post collegiate adolescence that I had hoped I would be able to skip over once I had graduated from university (Ha!). And so considering what the consequences of unemployment has been for me, I was a little surprised by the sense of relief I felt after reading Tavia Grant’s article “Job fears for a “lost generation” published on Feb. 4th in the online edition of the Globe and Mail. The article outlines February’s depressingly high youth unemployment figures, and what that has meant for thousands of Canadians between the ages of 15 and 24 . Quite frankly it was nice to read a set of stories about people like myself feeling desperate about their employment prospects. For those of you with a steady job this might sound awful, but for those of you without one you may be in a better position to understand why and how I could have felt this way, though I will readily admit that this is a terrible impulse. What Grant’s piece offered me was the perversely comforting statistical reality that there are greater forces, consisting mainly of a terrible economy, conspiring to keep people in my age bracket in a rut, and that one’s best in this economy may not be good enough. For me, at least, it helps makes the feelings of despair that sometimes creep up as a result of unemployment a little easier to manage and keep in perspective. And this is what crossed my mind when I read Robin Martinez Henig’s “What Is It About 20-Somethings?”.
Henig’s piece discusses a trend in psychology, that has yet to hit critical mass, but that has many scholars arguing that one’s 20s would be better thought of as a sort of second adolescence. Henig zeroes in on the work of psychology professor Jeffery Jensen Arnett who has been spearheading this movement in academia to change the way most academics think about the immediate period after adolescence. Now, it is being debated among scholars whether or not this time should be thought of as a new life stage. For those, like Arnett, who believe that it should, they are beginning to refer to the years between one’s late teens to late 20s as a period of “emerging adulthood.” Henig offers the statistic that, “In 1960, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had, by the time they reached 30, passed all five milestones. Among 30-year-olds in 2000, according to data from the United States Census Bureau, fewer than half of the women and one-third of the men had done so. A Canadian study reported that a typical 30-year-old in 2001 had completed the same number of milestones as a 25-year-old in the early ’70s,” as evidence that getting to what is “typically” (by home whom is not made clear, but I suspect she means by people who may describe themselves as middle class) called adulthood is taking young people longer than it used. Adulthood, is also defined as a young person’s ability to reach certain milestones, specifically, completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child (I guess if you choose not to or can’t get married or have children you won’t be reaching “full adulthood”) . Arnett argues that since researchers have discovered that the average person’s brain may not fully develop until they have reached their mid 20s (at least) then society may have to change its approach to understanding this time in people’s lives. Henig goes on to infer that this new understanding of post adolescence may also require new systems of institutional support geared specifically to individuals in this age bracket. And so what I understood as merely one of the many shitty side effects of a painfully sluggish economy , is now instead being thought of as a part of something much greater and more complicated. I think this is what makes Arnett’s theory so appealing. For people in their 20s and their parents who feel that,for whatever reason, they simply cannot get their shit together the idea that everyone experiences something like an “emerging adulthood” is a great excuse for why that is and may even offer something much less stigmatizing and frankly insulting than laziness and immaturity as an explanation for their inability to reach what are increasingly becoming unreliable ( assuming that these ever were) benchmarks of adulthood. Other bloggers and scholars have pointed out two of the most obvious flaws in this logic, the first being that “emerging adulthood” as a phenomena is pretty much confined to developed countries and that most people, including those in their twenties live complicated lives, and come from varying socio-economic backgrounds that may not afford them the luxury of a protracted youth, so I won’t go much into that here. I did find it interesting that this theory seems to scapegoat a bit the very real problems of high youth unemployment.
While its nice to think that a 22 year old’s inability to achieve fiscal independence may be the result of brain immaturity, the idea of “emerging adulthood” as explained in the article does seem to sidestep the very real structural obstacles that prevents many young people from reaching their goals. Sometimes it really is about not having enough or the right kind of experience or job getting skills (like, interviewing skills, access to employment counsellors who can help you improve your resume) or access to education. Sometimes its because the cost of getting an education can result in a lifetime of crippling debt and therefore at least a few years after graduating of living with your parents (at least for the lucky ones). And sometimes its because a lot of jobs out there are contract/temporary/ seasonal work and therefore people in their 20s may be more likely to experience some level of job insecurity which may make it that much more difficult for them to plan for the next stage, whatever that may be.