There is a curious temporal tension in Robin Marantz Henig’s New York Times Magazine article “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” between the need to explain the titular group’s behaviors through enduring biological characteristics and a definition of those behaviors based in specific conditions. This is how Henig describes her question:
“It’s happening all over, in all sorts of families, not just young people moving back home but also young people taking longer to reach adulthood overall. It’s a development that predates the current economic doldrums, and no one knows yet what the impact will be — on the prospects of the young men and women; on the parents on whom so many of them depend; on society, built on the expectation of an orderly progression in which kids finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and eventually retire to live on pensions supported by the next crop of kids who finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and on and on. The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain un tethered 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.”
The author describes the problem of delayed adulthood as disconnected from specific economic conditions, but then defines it largely as the inability to find a “job-job” and the life that comes with steady employment. I find it somewhat difficult not to answer the interrogative title by quoting James Carville (What is it with 20-somethings? It’s the economy, stupid!), but this central tension between the enduring or generic and the present moment is far more interesting than that. What Henig ultimately points to is the emergence of a form-of-life at a certain time and place that nonetheless expresses itself as nature. She devotes much of the article to Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a psychologist who has been arguing for a decade that society ought acknowledge the developmental stage of “emerging adulthood” during the early 20’s. Henig backs up Arnett’s ideas with brain-size research from the National Institute of Mental Health that found human brains continue developing heavily into our mid-twenties. But neurological development is not tied to the Dow Jones Industrial Average, so why are we just figuring this out? Henig takes a stab: “Maybe it’s only now, when young people are allowed to forestall adult obligations without fear of public censure, that the rate of societal maturation can finally fall into better sync with the maturation of the brain.”
This sentence of Henig’s fits with the entanglement of what Italian thinker Paolo Virno labels the “always already” and the “just now.” Enduring general human characteristics (the always already of human nature) are understood as such only under certain historical circumstances (the just now of material conditions). Arnett and co. describe “emerging adulthood” as a constant part of human nature, but Henig’s article has been among the Times’s top-10 most e-mailed articles since it was posted online a week before its publication because it hits a just-now sensitive cultural nerve. By the logic of Henig’s piece, only through an employment crisis could we young people discover that we were developmentally unfit to hold non-precarious jobs all along. I and my fellow 20-somethings (what is it with us?) face a tortured temporality: only just now can we understand that we were always already not yet adults. No wonder we can’t get jobs.