Is It Them Or Us?

A short time ago, the New York Times ran a story headlined, "What is it about 20-somethings?" and posed the question "Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?" The article looked at the science behind development and put forth the theory that there may be a need for a new life stage called "emerging adulthood," which would cover the period from roughly 18 through a person's 20s. Neuroscientists are recognizing that our brains are still developing well into our 20s and, therefore, not reaching adult maturity in line with the age at which we are expected to be adults.

Because many Gen Yers fall into this age, I began to wonder if it was science or the way we raised our kids that is prolonging their arrival to adulthood? After all, many Gen Yers were raised as mini-adults with action-packed schedules by "helicopter parents" who hovered in their kids' lives and stood ready to problem solve for them long after they should have. And Gen Y is a generation that was raised with an endless sense of possibility. A majority of them agrees that eventually they will get whatever they want in life and that they will be great at something even if they don't know what that is.



Whether it's nature or nurture or some combination, another possible explanation for why so many 20-somethings are taking a long time to grow up could be that we haven't been ready for them. Maybe we as educators and employers have failed to be ready for the way they think, function and get inspired. After all, they are optimistic, tech savvy, civic-minded, chronic multi-taskers. How many colleges, universities and employers are ready for that?

This generation thrives in environments that offer interactive, collaborative experiences on a flexible schedule. Imagine how many 20-somethings that are used to multi-tasking in a multi-media environment would be happy in a traditional college setting, where your days are filled with long lectures.

The same is true for the places they work. Imagine that same 20-something finishing college and then being expected to join a company where they sit at a desk 8-10 hours a day with two weeks of vacation a year. If this cubicle existence defines "growing up," then no wonder Gen Yers are taking their time getting there. This generation is the most worldly, multi-cultural generation of our lifetime. They expect to have opportunities that serve a purpose and allow them to see the world along the way.

I am not trying to make excuses for Gen Y, but my point is they are wired differently (as will every generation forward be) and because boomers run most academic and professional institutions, we need to prepare for the future by evolving the experience today. Consider:

  • How can we make higher education more adaptable to enable starting and stopping more often?
  • Can we make higher education about lifelong learning instead of a series of two- and four-year degrees?
  • How can we bring more active-learning experiences into both the course room and the workplace?
  • How can we combine school and work with the fulfillment of a civic purpose?
  • How can we provide opportunities for greater involvement in cross- border and cross-cultural work?

This generation is bigger than the boomer generation and we as academic and professional leaders have a responsibility to ready our organizations to embrace their potential ... whenever they grow up.

4 comments about "Is It Them Or Us? ".
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  1. Lana Sloan from Explore Minnesota Tourism, October 1, 2010 at 12:18 p.m.

    Based upon my generation's experience, it is more basic. It's an expectation that they will assume more responsibility in their teens, be self-sufficient after college and understand that life is wonderful but sometimes tough. If parents stop arranging their lives for them, Generation Y will be better equipped to become adults earlier. Our education system needs to be reformed to focus on learning for real life.

  2. Mike Anderson from CSS, October 1, 2010 at 12:24 p.m.

    Why is it taking this generation so long to grow up (and why are 20-somethings not acting like adults)? These are not new questions. If you are between the ages of 45 and 65, remember that most parents were asking precisely the same question throughout the 60's and 70's.

  3. Steven Howard from Howard Marketing Services, October 1, 2010 at 4:14 p.m.

    Your comment on lifelong learning over a series of two-year and four-year programs is spot on.

    But how do we instill a desire for lifelong leanring in those who seem obsessed with playling computer games and talking trash on Facebook all day long?

    How do we inculcate goal-setting, commitment, the importance of meeting deadlines when our schools have a lazy attitude about completing homework and turning assignments in on time?

    What strikes me most about Gen Y is their desire for group affinity and acceptance of others, while the Baby Boomers create divisions across the political and cultural landscape.

  4. Roger Snook from FamilyLife, October 4, 2010 at 9:17 a.m.

    Perhaps we as parents have enabled their continued adolescence. Shielding this generation from repsonsibilites that prior generations had to deal with
    at this age, is what I believe to be the core issue.

    Here's an interesting artivle on why men won't grow up:

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