The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain untethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary (and often grueling) Teach for America jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life.

That’s a quote from a New York Times magazine article on a newly-designated phase of life: “emerging adulthood.”  Rita Koganzon, a Harvard grad student, suggests in a riveting article in the New Atlantis that EA may really be “slacking as self-discovery.” (Psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett came up with the term “emerging adulthood.”) Kalganzon describes EA:

Free from external constraints (and often supported financially by their parents), twentysomethings have the opportunity to try an array of temporary jobs, relationships, educational paths, and residences to find which of these are most to their preference. In winnowing down the options, they are also able to “find themselves,” a discovery that will serve them well as adults, assuming they ever decide to become adults. Armed with the self-knowledge gained from a decade of working at Starbucks, joining the Peace Corps, and sharing a basement studio in Brooklyn with four other emerging adults, those at the end of emerging adulthood will better make the family and career decisions they had been putting off, resulting in a future of greater life satisfaction and stability.

Gosh, I’d hate to have to foot the bills for an Emerging Adult! Emerging Adulthood, needless to say, is a luxury afforded only in the industrialized world. It allows decisions about marriage and work to be put off indefinitely until the Emerging Adult has found him or herself.  The New York Times article quotes sources who say that these loafers–excuse me, Emerging Adults–will eventually make better decisions about marriage and work because of this extended period of freedom. I dunno: do spoiled brats make better decisions? Kalganzon writes of a woman whose family needs made such a period impossible:

There is, for example, Nicole, a young woman Arnett interviews in his book who grew up in a housing project and began working at eight to care for her younger siblings. In a strikingly mature, actually adult way, she managed to hold down a full-time job, take care of her family, and earn a degree. Though this may strike some as a remarkable achievement, this view overlooks how much more fun she could have had if she didn’t have all those pesky responsibilities to weigh her down. “Is it only a grim pessimist like me who sees how many roadblocks there will be on the way to achieving those dreams and who wonders what kind of freewheeling emerging adulthood she is supposed to be having?” [author of the New York Times article Robin Marantz] Henig laments.

Just a bet but I suggest that Nicole is going to end up with more depth of character-not to mention a paying job-than the emerged adults, if, that is, they do emerge from adolescence.