Life: drifting aimlessly versus setting a course

I was seething after I finished reading an article in the Wall Street Journal today.  Here’s an excerpt.

Recent research into how the brain develops suggests that people are better equipped to make major life decisions in their late 20s than earlier in the decade. The brain, once thought to be fully grown after puberty, is still evolving into its adult shape well into a person’s third decade, pruning away unused connections and strengthening those that remain, scientists say.

“Until very recently, we had to make some pretty important life decisions about education and career paths, who to marry and whether to go into the military at a time when parts of our brains weren’t optimal yet,” says neuroscientist Jay Giedd at the National Institute of Mental Health, whose brain-imaging studies of thousands of young people have yielded many of the new insights. Postponing those decisions makes sense biologically, he says. “It’s a good thing that the 20s are becoming a time for self-discovery.”

Such findings are part of a new wave of research into “emerging adulthood,” the years roughly from 18 to 29, which psychologists, sociologists and neuroscientists increasingly see as a distinct life stage. The gap between adolescence and full adulthood is becoming ever wider as more young people willingly or because of economic necessity prolong their education and postpone traditional adult responsibilities. As recently as the 1960s, the average age of first marriage for women in the U.S. was 20, and men 22. Today, the average is 26 for women and 28 for men.

“It should be reassuring for parents to know that it’s very typical in the 20s not to know what you’re going to do and change your mind and seem very unstable in your life. It’s the norm,” says Jeffrey J. Arnett, a professor of psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., who coined the term “emerging adulthood” in 2000.

For young adults, it can be a stressful time. High rates of anxiety, depression, motor-vehicle accidents and alcohol use are at their peak from 18 to 25, trends that tend to level out by age 28, studies show. And a recent survey by Clark University, which polled more than 1,000 young adults nationwide, found that 72% said this time of life was stressful and 33% said they were often depressed. Still, 89% believed they would eventually get what they want out of life.

. . .

How can emerging adults maximize their brain potential in this period? “Things that are cognitively stimulating are important,” says Dr. Steinberg. “Watching talking cats on YouTube isn’t as good for cognitive development as reading or taking classes.”

Even young adults who are financially dependent on their parents can practice independence in other ways. “My advice is, if your parents are currently doing things for you that you could do for yourself, take the controls. Say, ‘No. Mom, Let me get my own shampoo,’ ” says Jennifer Tanner, a developmental psychologist and co-chair of the Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood, an academic organization.

There’s more at the link.  Bold print is my emphasis.

Where does one begin to react to such sanctimonious twaddle?  I submit that the reason ’emerging adults’ haven’t yet actually become adults is because their parents are aiding and abetting their ongoing childishness!  I can assure you, if I, at the age of 17, had said to my father and mother, “It’s normal for me to be unstable and have no idea what I want to do with my life”, their reaction would have been twofold.  First, they would have pointed out my stupidity and self-indulgent silliness (probably in words of approximately one syllable).  Second, they would have shown me the door immediately, with an injunction to “Get out there and figure out what you want to do – and while you’re doing that, support yourself, because we’re not going to waste any more of our hard-earned money on you!”

In fact, that’s pretty much what they did with me.  Dad was preparing to retire, and Mom was preparing to move to another town several hundred miles away to set up their retirement home, where he’d join her in a year or two.  They were preparing our present house for sale, encouraging me through my final year at school, and helping my younger sisters in their equivalents of US Grades 7 and 10.  They strongly ‘encouraged’ me to volunteer for military service literally one week after my final exam, and head off to the recruiting barracks that same day – because they wanted me out of their hair while they got everything else done.  There was no lack of love in that, just the recognition by all concerned – including me – that it was time I took charge of my own life and gave them some space to deal with their other responsibilities.  Did I enjoy it?  No – I’d only just turned 17, and the big bad world out there was a pretty scary place.  Did that stop me?  Like hell it did!  It was sink or swim;  and given the choice, I did what most people do (or used to do) – I learned to swim.

I didn’t settle into a career direction for several years after that (and would change it again almost a decade later).  During those years I was a military man, a computer operator, and (briefly) a full-time student in two countries, living in eleven different (often widely separated) locations.  Was I always happy?  No.  Did I feel comfortable with myself and my situation in life at all times?  Of course not – but I got on with it, because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t eat or have a place to sleep.  By learning to cope with life and support myself, I also found out more about who I was and what made me tick, and was able to make better-informed choices as I got older.  If I’d sat at home and stagnated while indulging my eager appetites and angsting about life, the universe and everything, I’d have wasted those years.  As it was, they helped shape and form me, and make me a much more mature person.

The same applies to many of my peers.  Some of us had to make life-or-death decisions in military service – as in, “kill or be killed”!  We all made mistakes, and found we could either accept responsibility for them, learn from them, and assume their burden as adults, or try to run from them – just like children almost always do, in the absence of adult guidance.  We soon learned that no-one trusts a man or woman who won’t own up to his or her misdeeds and/or accept responsibility for their consequences.  If you want a concrete example of that in society today, look at those groups where unwed pregnancy is rampant, and look at how few fathers are willing to step up to the plate and at least pay child support for their unwanted offspring.  The groups where this problem is greatest are also the groups with the greatest social breakdown and moral decay.  There’s a reason for the correlation . . . even though it’s not politically correct to point that out.  (You’ll note how deferential I am towards political correctness, I’m sure.)

You’ll understand, therefore, that when I see a so-called ‘professional’ say something like ‘… take the controls. Say, “No. Mom, Let me get my own shampoo”,’ I get really pissed off, very quickly.  If something as pathetically silly as buying your own shampoo (probably with your parents’ money, judging by the context above) is what’s considered ‘taking the controls’ of your own life in today’s society . . . we’re bloody doomed.



  1. I've been enjoying your thoughts for (cough) years. Are you planning a biography? I ask only because you are a most interesting and complete human.

  2. Sometimes I feel like I am drifting a bit in life, but I have a full times job and make plenty of money to get by. By the time I made it through college with my parents help, the last thing I wanted to do was live at home. I wanted to be on my own, paying my own bills, with no one telling me what to do.

    IMO, if a young twenty something doesn't know what to do with their life, the best thing they can do is find a job and learn skills until they find what they want. They will never find their thing sitting idle and partying.


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