Book Review: Not Quite Adults

I’m 23 (going on 24), which means that Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood, and Why It’s Good for Everyone (Settersten and Ray, 2010), is not just a little pro-devo for someone who works with an 18-24 population. This book pretty much describes my life. 

As I write this, I’m sitting in my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house. My relying on my parents to help cover the gap between my two jobs is pretty emblematic of the new transition to adulthood described in Settersten and Ray’s book, which is based on eight years of research by the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, a research network that includes twelve researchers in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, economics, sociology, criminology, and public policy. Because of the relevance to both my personal and professional lives, I thought that this book was an excellent choice to provide perspective and provoke thought about the experience of “growing up”. I would certainly recommend this (especially to other young professionals like myself!)

It’s Pretty Legit

The research cited in the book covers a variety of quantitative and qualitative studies conducted across the U.S. and takes an interdisciplinary approach to painting a picture of the experiences of the current 20-something crowd as they come of age in a drastically changed society. The book uses excerpts from interviews throughout, weaving the stories of young people into statistics and observations. As a result, the book is an interesting read that is completely salient to those working in higher education, to students themselves, for parents, and for recent graduates. Although one must keep in mind significant current events that have occurred since the book’s print date of 2010 (especially Occupy Wall Street), this manageable read offers excellent insights into understanding the path that young people in the U.S. are taking to reach adulthood today.

Sink or Swim

One of the central themes in the book is the idea of “swimmers and treaders”, working off of the “sink or swim” metaphor. Clear in the designation between young people who are swimmers (mostly those who successfully attain higher education and who have strong family support) and treaders (those who may lack the credentials and support necessary for long-term economic and personal success) is that the socio-economic and racial divide in this country is alive and well in determining the opportunities of young people. Also clear in exploring this theme is that the “American Dream” in the way it was interpreted by older generations is long gone. In addition to emphasizing education, the authors strongly examine the important role that family and parental support plays in the potential success of young people. It’s not about hard work; it’s about social capital, privilege, and having the ability to take advantage of social, economic, and educational opportunities to leverage success (not quite the American Dream, right?)

Speaking of the American Dream…

If it wasn’t obvious already, the old adage of success through hard work is not really flying anymore these days. Call me a cynic, if you will, but this isn’t your mama’s America anymore. Literally, it’s not. This is one of the points that Not Quite Adults drives home strong and clear: this country has changed. The rules are totally different than they were a couple of generations ago, and as a result, parents may encourage their children to follow the same path they did, with completely different outcomes. Financial success and security is almost inextricably tied to higher education, and the path to higher education includes debt. The authors make a great argument for taking on smart debt (like investing in an education that you can afford long-term, buying a house, etc). Perhaps most important to this book (and to the new experience of young people), is that the path to adulthood has become elongated, and that where families and society can support young people (by letting us live at home, for example) to help us get on our feet, it benefits society at large.

Higher Ed Relevance

I felt that this book fit seamlessly into my inquiry about the experiences and development of college students, especially considering the broad viewpoint that it provides on the benefits of education, the role of higher education in society, and practical, real topics like taking on student debt, moving back in with your parents, and negotiating romantic relationships and marriage. This is a book that has helped me to gain increased perspective on the world around me and society’s attitudes toward my generation and has provided me with worthwhile insights to apply to my work with students.