Arnold Kling  

Odyssey Years

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David Brooks writes,


People who were born before 1964 tend to define adulthood by certain accomplishments — moving away from home, becoming financially independent, getting married and starting a family.

In 1960, roughly 70 percent of 30-year-olds had achieved these things. By 2000, fewer than 40 percent of 30-year-olds had done the same.


Read the whole thing. Brooks' economics is often execrable, but his sociology seems on target (but I'm no sociologist).

His term "odyssey" is quite apt. Young people today do a lot more foreign traveling than they used to.

My wife's view of the odyssey years is not so sanguine. She sees a failure of college to provide a transition to the job market.

Ben Casnocha strikes me as someone who is doing a lot of things right as a young person. He also strikes me as someone who ought to benefit from college, unlike the majority of young people who just happen to show up there. His perspective will be interesting to follow.

UPDATE: A commenter points to the latest essay by Paul Graham. It is a wide-ranging and interesting essay (Graham is one of my favorites). Near the end, he speculates on the future role of college.


In a startup you're judged by users, and they don't care where you went to college. So in a world of startups, elite universities will play less of a role as gatekeepers. In the US it's a national scandal how easily children of rich parents game college admissions. But the way this problem ultimately gets solved may not be by reforming the universities but by going around them.

...Instead of trying to get good grades to impress future employers, students will try to learn things. We're talking about some pretty dramatic changes here.


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COMMENTS (17 to date)
David writes:

As a veteran of my own 20-something Odyssey years (I am now early 40's), there are a couple things I would like to add from my own experience. First, the challenges and rewards of parenthood greatly outweigh any experience I had wandering around- I wish I had my kids earlier. The pressures of providing for my family definitely helped me focus on making a living. Second, given the vast wealth accumulated by my parents' generation, I wonder how many peoples' personal odyssey years are subsidized to some extent. For example, "I know working at that battered women's shelter in Oakland is what you love, but if we pay for a plane ticket will you come home to Shaker Heights for Thanksgiving?"

Joe Hampton writes:

In response to David Brook's comment, I feel that he is right on track with my generation. (I am a 20-something college student). In the wonderful days of yester-year, I am under the impression that highschool was considered the best days of your life. If you had a highschool degree, you were pretty well set to make a basic living, start a family, and get on with your "real life".
Of course, if you went to college, then you were really one step above the game. Now-a-days, college is mandatory. To get a halfway decent job, college is a necessity. In someways, I feel that college is the new highschool. This said, I think that it is apparent that many young women and men are postponing moving out of their parents houses, getting married, and having children until they have completed college.
If you figure they graduate college at the earliest, 22 or 23, then that gives them 7 or 8 years to get on their feet and get on with life. Todays adults had an extra four to five years to begin work, start a family, and "define their adulthood".
Also, with the vast changes in the numbers of students going on to masters and doctoral programs, many more young adults are waiting longer and longer to start families.

Tom Tobin writes:

Of the four markers of adulthood noted — "moving away from home, becoming financially independent, getting married and starting a family" — only the first two strike me as relevant. There are many who enjoy independence from both the succor of parents and the demands of children, and who see no reason as they age to retire from a life of productivity. Perhaps this is a "life branch" that has been with us all along: a melding of odyssey and adulthood.

Danny L. McDaniel writes:

Economics has dictated adolecence well into the 30's for modern Americans. After readings Brooks piece I am reminded of Pete Peterson book from some 10 years ago ago entitled: "Will America grow up before America grows old." I believe the turning point for American culture and economics came in 1963 when for the first time in history a majority of college aged Americans went to college. College became the new milestone in American society, taking the place of high school.

The college experience changed the life-cycle for Americans. There would less getting married straight out of high school to your sweetheart; settling into a pre-fab sub-division,and getting straight eight on the factory floor. You can still find a few pockets of this in the US but it is getting more rare every year.

College changed thinking and expectations for individuals and the society they live in. Social changed based to economics have changed the American life style and life cycle. When I went to high school in the mid to late 1970's local factories came into the industrial arts department and recruited high school students who studies drafting, machine shop and power shop for good paying jobs at graduation - none of those factories exist in that town anymore.

I found Brooks article intresting but I would not want to go back to those days for nothing.

Danny L. McDaniel
Lafayette, Indiana

Jim T writes:

Brooks writes:

Dating gives way to Facebook and hooking up.

Maybe he means MySpace which was and is very open.

Facebook has only been around for 3 1/2 years and has a lot of privacy features lacking in MySpace. Networks are built on friendships.

Me:
Born 1950
Married before 30.
Adding to family delayed but all now in college.

Difference between my "then" and now. All sorts of fields to conquer then.
Example: The Peace Corps would truly send you to a place far away.

Now: One planet. News via the Internet is global and instantaneous.

As to young people on an Odyssey today... I suggest a sort of the data by birth order. 2nd and 3rd seem more prone to drift than 1st.

liberty writes:

1. Hopefully most are moving away and independent, just not having families so young.

2. College may be less for prep-for-work and more for figure-myself-out. People are taking more time to decide what they *really* want to do. They are putting off deciding for life-- deciding for life careers, spouses, families. These are big decisions, its ok to take time. Sometimes we go too far and miss our opportunities or waste lives being unproductive, but broadly speaking its a great luxury to be able to take the time to choose wisely and choose for personal joy and satisfaction, rather than for utility alone.

General Specific writes:

"My wife's view of the odyssey years is not so sanguine. She sees a failure of college to provide a transition to the job market. "

This seems to blame the colleges for choices made by the students. I think we're dealing with a phenomenon that is a matter of choice in many cases. Young people choose to travel a lot. They choose to go into debt. And their parents choose to put up with it. And to raise them to do it.

This phenomenon is nothing new. We've been observing it since the 1950s (not 1964), with the rise of the middle class and the increase in society's wealth--and the creation of a younger class with disposable income--or easy access to debt.

Erich Schwarz writes:

Interestingly, this post came out on about the same day that Paul Graham predicted that the whole "college as very expensive slacker hothouse" phenomenon may be doomed by technology:

"I grew up in a time where college degrees seemed really important, so I'm alarmed to be saying things like this, but there's nothing magical about a degree ... The importance of degrees is due solely to the administrative needs of large organizations."

http://www.paulgraham.com/webstartups.html

Tracy W writes:

Wuthnow observes, but then graduate into a world characterized by uncertainty, diversity, searching and tinkering. Old success recipes don’t apply, new norms have not been established and everything seems to give way to a less permanent version of itself.

Has the world ever not been like this?

I mean, my grandparents graduated into adulthood in the Great Depression and WWII. Not exactly certain. One of my Gran's experiences of uni was checking the noticeboards each day to see if any of her friends or relatives were on the casulty lists. Granddad, the farmer, had to cope with massive changes during his working life - the end of WWII, the entry of Britain into the EU, changes to mechanical milking, etc, etc. Grandpa was a scientist, so uncertainty, diversity, tinkering were the norm for him.

Two of my grandparents were part of the first generation to go on to university in their families.

Then my parents' generation had the second-wave of feminism to cope with - a massive set of new social norms. And of course hippies, and contraception, and then the 1970s oil crisis.
Then we had the 1980s reforms, a massive change in labour markets, the disapperance of a lot of old manufacturing.

When was this time when old success recipes applied, norms were firmly established, and everything seemed a permanent version?

The job market is fluid. Graduating seniors don’t find corporations offering them jobs that will guide them all the way to retirement. Instead they find a vast menu of information economy options, few of which they have heard of or prepared for.

But what's new about this? There have always been a wide range of jobs around, few of which we are prepared for. My Gran went to university and so did Grandpa, but Gran's English degree meant she wasn't prepared for a career in chemistry, and I don't think Grandpa would have done that well teaching English classes. And then of course Grandma's training as a dental nurse was different again.

I mean, great-grandma went in her lifetime from horses and carts to a man landing on the moon. I think people have been coping with unstable conditions for many generations before the 21st century.

General Specific writes:

"I think people have been coping with unstable conditions for many generations before the 21st century."

David Brooks is not a commentator known for much depth nor breadth. He has an idea (an ideological belief I should say), then skims available data to argue his case with highly selective facts.

I'm actually surprised Kling would on the one hand say Brooks is egregious when it comes to economics and then quote him on something Kling doesn't have expertise in--sociology.

I'm going to bet Brooks's sociology is also "execrable."

General Specific writes:

" commenter points to the latest essay by Paul Graham"

Reads like George Guilder if you ask me. Combined with Thomas Friedman. Particularly this phrase:

"in a world of startups"

What does that even mean? In a world of startups? The whole world will be filled with startups? My concerns were answered when I read his bio. Computer scientist who views the entire world through the paradigm of creating a web page or online business.

Erich Schwarz writes:

Graham didn't just have one startup of his own (bought out by Yahoo for some $Ms); he runs Y Combinator, which funds startups every year. When he says that "college doesn't matter", he's partly alluding to his experience that the most successful startups he's so far funded have zero correlation with Ivy League affiliation, and not much correlation with being age >22.

My one critique would be that he's describing a world that works great if everybody has a median IQ of 120 and is fairly book-loving, but which doesn't scale quite so easily to the real world in which median IQ is 100 and articulate literacy -- let alone numeracy -- is considered an increasingly arcane achievement.

Which takes us back to the general uselessness of much of the modern U.S. "college experience"...

General Specific writes:

"he runs Y Combinator, which funds startups every year. "

He's still living a teensy tiny corner of the universe but uses that corner to make grandiose statements about a world of startups. Too grandiose if you ask me. Hence my comparison to Guilder. There is no world of startups now, nor do we see a world of startups coming down the line. That line of thinking is so 1999.

MT57 writes:

I am all in favor of Graham's concepts that success in many areas can be independent of academic pedigree and that a scoiety in which there are channels to success that don't flow through college is a better one than one in whcih they only flow through college. But those are mom and apple pie ideas. Otherwise, I think his argument is grossly overstated in most respects and applicable only to the risk tolerant. In contrast, I find many college students and young adults to be quite risk averse and not all slackers. A country of 300 million people is going to be a diverse one and overgeneralizations are unlikely ever to be correct.

I'm a borderline baby boomer, but as I read Brooks this morning, I pondered the 'why' of this - the root cause. The impact of relative affluence and relative ease of life today in America compared to the 40s, 50s, etc., the declining emphasis on self-sufficiency, on accountability and on responsibility for one's actions and decisions are some of the reasons, tho I'm not sure the root cause. Today we give all the soccer players on the 8yr old teams trophies for showing up - how dare you just reward those who have actually accomplished something! It pervades our middle-class suburban society - and we afford our youth the freedom to have an odyssey and an increasingly extended one at that. Is this a good thing or not? Depends on one's perspective and one's expectations for the future of america in a global economy. There is, as with all life, a fine line between making kids grow up too fast and never requiring them to grow up at all...and we, as a society, will live with the consequences of where and how that fine line is managed. Our institutions, academic or not, merely reflect our society and its values...at both a macro and microscopic level.

Buzzcut writes:

"The Oddyssey" has everything to do with affluence and nothing to do with anything else.

Why do kids take so long to become adults? Because they can afford to.

At the turn of the century, maybe only the children of the Astors could be aimless for so long.

But because of economic growth, the children of the entire middle class can have funded goofoff years through their thirtees.

Rice7036 writes:

Well, I was the one who got married in highschool and had children early in life(19)And worked to put myself through college and was in the work force(professionally) for only 8 years before returning to school for a different degree. Let me just tell you how times have changed. My now 16 and 12 year old(or their peers) are not even close to being as mature and responsible as I or my peers were at that age. In those odyssey years our generation was working by the age of 15 and paid for our own cars, gas, and clothes. Now the college students I wm enrolled with still don't pay for anything except maybe their booze. They all play video games and don't care so much about anything otherwise. Somehow I feel that technology is responsible for their laziness. When I was in school as a child, calculators were almost a sin to use. Everything was learned by writing it out and using your own mind to come up with the correct answer. Now children/ young adults don't know how to work out a problem without using a calculator or some electronic device to solve the problem for them. Why is it not cool to use your head anymore. The odyssey years have changed all right. Now you don't have to start growing up until you are around 35 instead of 15. Responsibility is almost obsolete, that's the problem with the children today.

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