An article in The New York Times five years ago discussed the idea of ‘social progression’ – the notion that we do not automatically become adults but progress through benchmarks in life to reach a certain stage of adulthood. Psychologists generally agree that this transition is traditionally marked by five particular milestones: finishing education, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having a child. However, even five years ago, the author of the article was arguing that this notion of social progression is quite significantly flawed: this is becoming increasingly obvious in our modern society. Finishing education is an ambiguous concept; the demanding job market means that many people return to education as mature students, due to a lack of better options or the necessity of finding a better job. An increasing number of people, particularly graduates, are living at home well into their 20s, as the housing market is almost impossible to break into. Financial independence is an equally dubious prospect due to student loans, minimum wage, and the general expense of everyday life. Perhaps most interestingly, the traditional process of committing to a long-term partner, getting married and then having a child is being turned on its head, as people find that it does not always suit our modern values and lifestyles anymore.
The idea of getting married, for instance, is constantly marred by reports of higher levels of divorce, people preferring to remain single, the overall acceptance of cohabitation, pre-marital sex, and the birth of children to unmarried parents. In the early 1970s, the median age for first marriages was 21 for women and 23 for men. By 2009, it had crept up to 26 and 28. This implies that we are taking longer to commit to getting married; but are we taking longer to commit to anything? In 1960, 77 per cent of women and 65 per cent of men had passed all the traditional milestones by the time they were 30. By 2000, the same applied to less than half of 30-year-old women and a third of 30-year-old men. The period between the age of 18 and the mid-20s is legally defined as adulthood, but most of the people I know who fall into that age bracket I would only dubiously describe as ‘adults’ – and they certainly will not be becoming financially independent and getting married anytime soon. Staying in a temporary home, travelling, interning and getting a ‘stop-gap’ job are all ways to forestall adulthood, signalling the dawning of a new life stage which we need to start adjusting to – the ‘emerging adulthood’.
Avoiding commitment is a way of putting off becoming an adult, yet it is also increasingly becoming a way of proving your adulthood and signalling independence. A standard joke is to consider anyone in a committed relationship as ‘grown up’, with the UK being notoriously bad at the ‘dating scene’. David Mitchell expertly puts it into words: “I’m not saying I approve of arranged marriage, but it sometimes works better than getting hammered, having a cry, drinking through it, throwing up and then returning to the party’s chaotic closing minutes saying to yourself: ‘Right, who’s left?’” Having said that, committed, stable relationships do exist at university, and in many cases progress to living together and engagement; yet it seems more common in student culture for relationships to be replaced by one night stands, or instead to be perceived as the looser term of ‘seeing’ someone. With increased emphasis on issues such as gender equality and renewed emphasis on individual ambition, it seems that committing to one particular person has slipped down our list of priorities. For example, a friend of mine joyfully told her grandmother she was back with her ex-boyfriend, only to be told: “Ahhh, it won’t last.” It seems that we are no longer expected to be in a long-term relationship. Instead, we are expected to be fiercely independent.
Similarly, our changing notion of social progression is re-formatting the whole concept of careers. Young people now have boundless options and opportunities, and their career is seen as a key aspect of who they are. We face enormous pressure from every direction – parents, peers, university – to have some idea of what direction we want to go in. But the romantic notion of getting a degree and going straight into a great graduate position is now extremely unlikely. A survey in August found that almost 88 per cent of 82,000 people who graduated in 2011 were working, but that the majority of graduates were working in jobs that did not require a degree. The survey warned that over-qualification is at ‘saturation point’, with employers forced to request degrees for jobs that traditionally do not require them. This simultaneously eliminates job opportunities for people with no higher qualifications and offers lower job satisfaction for graduates. We are creating a more and more distinctive graduate economy, but without cultivating suitable graduate jobs.
If this continues, the whole concept of going to university could be undermined. University is demanding both mentally and physically; the prospect of what to do afterwards is daunting enough without having to worry about the possibility of having no prospects at all. After the 20 pence increase of minimum wage in October, The Guardian interviewed several graduates working minimum wage jobs, all of whom were financially struggling. One of the graduates was completing a paid internship at a magazine and pointed out that, since most internships are unpaid, she was very lucky to get it. On the other hand, she said that she found it ‘demoralising’ to work so hard at a job that allows for only basic survival, making her question the worth of her skills and the kind of career that she wants. Another interviewee had only graduated a few months ago, but was already finding living costs demanding and unfair, “especially when plonked at the centre of a post-university, not-yet-decided-on-a-career reality”.
The five-step ‘social progression’ towards adulthood is definitely an oversimplified process. But there is no denying that since then, societal expectations people face in their 20s have been altered, subtly but distinctly. Nobody expects you to be getting engaged in the next five years; nobody bats an eyelid if you are a Philosophy graduate working in a coffee shop. In the long run, there could be very negative consequences – it could be argued that when it comes to graduate careers, we are reaching a dangerous stagnation point. But a more positive thought is that, since our notion of the social progression towards adulthood is expanding, it is giving us a marvellous opportunity – a considerably longer period of time to experiment with education, careers and relationships.