As this year’s college graduates go forth into the world, they are entering a society that is in some ways decidedly unfriendly to them. TIME magazine’s recent cover slurring them as “The Me Me Me Generation” is only the latest insult thrown at them by their elders. In the twenty years I have been researching “emerging adults” (ages 18-29) I have been confronted again and again with the negative stereotypes about them: that they are lazy and selfish, and they never want to grow up.
What makes these stereotypes especially puzzling is that none of them are supported by the evidence. Lazy? They start at the bottom, and for years they do the work no one else wants to do, for little pay. Have you noticed who is making your latte, mowing your lawn, working the counter at the retail store? Nearly always they are emerging adults, doing unglamorous, low-paid work as they hope for and strive for something better.
Selfish? This stereotype has the patina of academic research claiming that the youth of today are more “narcissistic” than previous generations. Other research, however, has thoroughly debunked these claims. Also, college grads are applying in record numbers to service organizations such as Teach for America, Americorps, and the Peace Corps.
Being hopeful does not make them narcissistic. Instead, it gives them the strength and courage to get up again after they have been knocked down, as nearly all of them are in the course of their twenties.
In the national 2012 Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults I directed, 86 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds agreed that “It is important to me to have a career that does some good in the world.” Could their elders say as much?
It’s true that emerging adults are hopeful. In the 2012 Clark Poll, 89 percent agreed that “I am confident that eventually I will get what I want out of life.” But being hopeful does not make them narcissistic. Instead, it gives them the strength and courage to get up again after they have been knocked down, as nearly all of them are in the course of their twenties.
What about the claim that they never want to grow up? It’s true that today’s young people enter adult responsibilities of marriage, parenthood, and a long-term job later than their parents or grandparents did. However, the vast majority of them eventually take on these roles. It’s just that now they use most of their twenties for other kinds of experiences — traveling or living abroad, taking a shot at a fun but high-risk career path like music or acting, or just living a free and independent life for a few years. That’s not a failure to grow up, it’s a wise use of a brief window of freedom that will never return.
Why is it OK to vilify the young, to spout unfounded negative stereotypes of a whole generation? Over the past century, as a society, we have gradually abandoned previously acceptable stereotypes about women, religious minorities, ethnic minorities, and most recently, gays and lesbians. Bashing the young seems to be the last acceptable prejudice. It’s time we abandoned this one, too.
Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Ph.D., is a Clark University research professor of psychology and director of the 2013 Clark University Poll of Parents of Emerging Adults and the 2012 Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults. Arnett coined the term “emerging adulthood” and just released the first and only parenting guide for this stage: “When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up? Loving and Understanding Your Emerging Adult.”