Arnold Kling  

Twenty-Somethings

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From a long piece in the New York Times Magazine:


How about expanding programs like City Year, in which 17- to 24-year-olds from diverse backgrounds spend a year mentoring inner-city children in exchange for a stipend, health insurance, child care, cellphone service and a $5,350 education award? Or a federal program in which a government-sponsored savings account is created for every newborn, to be cashed in at age 21 to support a year's worth of travel, education or volunteer work -- a version of the "baby bonds" program that Hillary Clinton mentioned during her 2008 primary campaign? Maybe we can encourage a kind of socially sanctioned "­rumspringa," the temporary moratorium from social responsibilities some Amish offer their young people to allow them to experiment before settling down. It requires only a bit of ingenuity -- as well as some societal forbearance and financial commitment -- to think of ways to expand some of the programs that now work so well for the elite, like the Fulbright fellowship or the Peace Corps, to make the chance for temporary service and self-examination available to a wider range of young people.

Because every trend requires big government programs, right?

I think that the central trend here is that people do not want to work. Bruce Bartlett notes that


According to the Social Security Administration, 43 percent of men and 48 percent of women on Social Security in 2008 began drawing benefits at age 62. An additional 15 percent of men and women started at age 63 or 64. In short, about two-thirds of those eligible are retiring before the normal retirement age.

I'm all for people not working. Leisure is a great thing, and as we become wealthier we should take advantage of it. However, I do have a couple of worries.

1. I worry that many college graduates are unsettled nowadays because they did not really learn much.

2. I worry that twenty-somethings face so much social pressure not to work for a profit.

3. I worry that we send young people signals that they should run from adversity. I know of a couple twenty-somethings who landed good jobs and soon quit because they were criticized by their bosses. Look, nobody likes a difficult boss, but in my generation you would typically find a new job before you quit because the boss made you feel bad.

4. I worry about government engineering who gets leisure and who does not. Among the elderly, we already have a privileged class (retired government workers). Once we decide that the decade from age 20 to 30 is a public policy issue, who knows what mischief will be created?


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COMMENTS (30 to date)
Peter Gordon writes:

In an affluent society, adolescence extends. This has been a long term trend.

Hyena writes:

I'm going to just say it: have you ever considered that, maybe, just maybe, the world our elders created sucks hard and we really don't have any patience for it or desire to join it?

Hyena writes:

@Peter

Oh, and it's going to extend much longer. Thanks to the economy, many of us haven't even started careers or had them cut short. I suspect my attitudes and motivations will be alive and well into my late 30s.

Michael writes:

From my perspective (a twenty-something):

1. I did not really learn much in college. My goals in college, like most, were to graduate and maximize my GPA. So I used the unproductive strategy of screening courses to select the ones most likely to result in better grade at the expense of a better learning experience (the fact that the most recent educational innovation has focused on making the life of the teacher easier - e.g. grading and administrative automation - didn't help). The strategy was effective in getting me an entry-level job. However, I am lacking the skills required for advancement. It is very difficult to dedicate the time to play catch-up once out in the working world.

2. I do not see this as a wide-spread issue. There are some subsets of the twenty-somethings where the non-profit has achieved exalted status, but I would say the effect is limited to less than 10% of the twenty-something group.

3. My best guess is that we have developed the expectation that a job must provide an ethereal source of meaning and purpose to our lives and providing a source of income is secondary. A sense of meaning and purpose is something that most jobs cannot provide.

Chris Koresko writes:

@Hyena: Don't take this the wrong way, but what's so bad about this world? We've nearly eliminated many of the traditional scourges such as famine and plague, and made a really good start at ending extreme poverty as well. Slavery is almost gone now. We can talk with people all over the world and have a good start at a true global society. We live longer and healthier lives than at any previous time, and not by just a little. Scientific knowledge is advancing very rapidly. By most metrics this is the greatest golden age that ever existed.

So why are you so unhappy?

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

I still believe, perhaps wrongly, that people naturally gravitate to meaningful work in any circumstances where they have the chance. A number of individuals have told me that they would rather laze around in a perfect world, but I just can't see it. People need economic interaction with one another or they will eventually go nuts and I believe this applies to young people too. Hyena, you are still young. Dream about what is possible for you still have so much time.

Aaron writes:

In my experience as a twenty something, much of our earlier years were full of "you have to live out your dreams" rhetoric. I know a lot of people who work dead end jobs while playing in bands etc.

Some of us get "real jobs" in our late 20s, but I'm only looking at a small sample.

Jeff Holmes writes:

I'm 25, and a fairly prototypical "emerging adult." After graduating in finance and economics from a middling state uni, I spent a year on a federal work/study scholarship in Germany, then I spent a year in Rwanda running an import business. Next week I'm moving to NH to do an unpaid internship for three months for a well-known documentary film company, and after that I have no idea where I'll be (hoping for a paid position at the doc studio).

I view these choices as being in the spirit of Henry Adams. Essentially my post-graduate years have been an uncredited independent study, where I can explore ways of building my knowledge, organizing my thinking, and solving problems in various contexts. In some sense I suppose I'm "finding myself" but I think of it more as serious investment into my human capital that has a lesser "signalling" component than traditional higher ed.


Matt C writes:

I am not Hyena, but I may have some idea where he's coming from. There's a sense out there that on a personal/workplace level, the game is rigged and the liars, smooth talkers, and politickers are the ones who always come out on top. There's also a sense that at the national level, we're all screwed and can expect to pay exorbitant taxes (or premiums) for "benefits" which will go to anybody but us.

It's an excessively negative way to look at the world, but I can understand it. (If indeed this is what Hyena meant above.)

Of course in the really big picture, you're right. Modern Westerners have it ridiculously good in all sorts of ways compared to our predecessors, or indeed most of the rest of the world today. But the human beast is not wired to be happy on that basis.

Liam writes:

Actually Matt C makes an interesting observation. However we have all been where Hyena is now. We were young (I am 43 now) and I thought the world was run by liars and thieves and I was disheartened and discontent.

But Arnold makes an excellent point and as usual states it very accurately. Social Engineering to motivate the young is not a solution. We push the young towards noble causes but do not teach them fundamentals of how to achieve it on their own.

By the time I was 30 I was married for 4 years, had 2 children, lived in both Europe and Asia for extended periods with my wife and children and ran my own business (An English School). And it all started with $375 in cash and a one way ticket to Czechoslovakia. I would love to see that kind of mettle in the twenty something’s.

David C writes:

If twenty somethings are doing poorly relative to previous generations, then why do businesses appear to be trending younger in their hiring decisions than in previous generations?

agnostic writes:

Let people "find themselves" and "do service" when they're in middle and high school, then make them grow up (have a job, drive a car, have sex, preferably transitioning when they're in high school). Those years are more jam-packed with heavy events (drama) than the 20s, therefore make you reflect on deeper aspects of your identity and those around you.

Finding yourself in your 20s = dithering around a series of places, pondering whether you're more of a panini person or a wrap person, whether you're more of a backpacking-through-Bulgaria person or a stroll-around-Barcelona person. BFD. You've hit diminishing marginal returns to your identity formation.

The major exception is if you have a kid during your 20s as nature intends, but the people we're talking about are not going to -- especially if they're volunteering and finding themselves in Senegal.

agnostic writes:

"In an affluent society, adolescence extends. This has been a long term trend."

The long-term trend is just the opposite. Read any book on historical demography. In bad economic times, people delay getting married and having children, often remaining bachelors or spinsters, which given the low rate of illegitimacy means they remained virgins for longer. At least that's the picture for Northwestern Europe and its offshoots.

To take a recent example, look at the Long Boom of the '50s through the '70s. At one point people got married in their early 20s. Now it's back up to the mid-late 20s -- a sign that the supposed gains in wealth over the past decade or so have been mostly illusory (as the recession is still revealing), and that whatever real gains there were only went to a tiny portion of the population.

Hyena writes:

@Chris

Matt and Liam make the point correctly and you are not incorrect.

Explaining why I feel this way would require a blog of my own. For example, though, I took a low-cost health plan to save taxpayer money and use it rarely so I'm not bidding up the price of health care.

My elders think I should "look out for myself", that is, take everyone else for a ride.

Hyena writes:

@David

People under 35 have nigh-innate computer skills necessary for many jobs in the modern economy. We're also really good and experienced at making quick but strong social connections (thank you AIM!) with people we may never meet.

I've not found these qualities to be common in older workers.

Hyena writes:

@Michael

I'm mystified by this. I learned a lot in college but most people say they learned nothing.

rpl writes:

Hyena,

When you write:


My elders think I should "look out for myself", that is, take everyone else for a ride.

I wonder, how do you know you're not the one being taken for a ride? Somehow you have determined the appropriate share of goods to claim for yourself and have resolved not to claim more than that. That is admirable, but how did you arrive at that figure? How do you know that some other self-interested party hasn't persuaded you to claim less than your fair share so that they can have more? Looked at from this perspective, it appears that the basis for the "look out for number one" ethos is not sticking it to the other guy. Rather, it is recognizing that the best, indeed the only qualified, advocate for one's interests is oneself. Call me cynical, but I'm skeptical that the people suggesting you spend your 20s on an extended "rumspringa" have your best interests at heart.

People under 35 have nigh-innate computer skills necessary for many jobs in the modern economy. We're also really good and experienced at making quick but strong social connections (thank you AIM!) with people we may never meet.
I have to shake my head at the way your generation assumes that you invented computers, or at least that nobody really used them for anything interesting before you came along. I'm a good bit past 35, and yet when I went off to college I met in person for the first time people I had known for years over computer networks. Moreover, I spent a nontrivial fraction of my time on those computer networks having the exact discussion we're having now with my playing your role and someone 10 or 20 years my senior playing mine. I imagine those guys must be getting a bit of a chuckle if they're reading any of this.
I'm mystified by this. I learned a lot in college but most people say they learned nothing.
So, what are the most valuable things you learned in college? I learned technical writing, differential equations, quantum mechanics, and Fortran, but I gather those topics have fallen out of vogue lately.
Michael writes:

@Hyena

The vast majority of what I did learn in college did not come from the classroom. My school was heavily staffed by adjuncts and grad students that had little interest in teaching. Lectures were typically direct readings from the book. Exams were typically multiple choice on scan-tron paper because it was easier to grade. Investigative projects, where most learning occurs, were infrequent.

This type of experience may not be pervasive, but it's not rare either. It's probably most concentrated in large public universities that have faced budget crunches.

The experience did teach me that I have to be responsible for my own learning. Without a doubt, I have learned more in my two years since graduation than I did during college.

Ryan writes:

I know I'm going to sound old, but my main problem with my peers (20-somethings) is that they do not know or care to know history. I doubt I'm speaking about the people who regularly read this blog, but those who scrapped through college and are now doing something totally different than their original concentration. This is not bad per-se, but I have many friends who hold similar views as Hyena who feel the figurative boot of society has been thrust upon their necks.

Who can blame them? Right? They just spent $40,000 to $120,000 on school and are unable to find work (the elders told us we must go to college to succeed); the house they just purchased was overpriced (the elders just had to put everyone in a house); the planet is warming (damn elders); and a half a billion eggs are tainted!

Well, then you look at history -- and as others put it -- things could be a lot worse. In my naive, humble opinion, complacency is the worst thing in society. And that's where I see a large portion of my peers: those who spend inordinate amounts of time on Facebook/Twitter daily. The Times' piece is a load of malarky though.

Hyena writes:

@Michael

That is the critical insight. People treat college like you should go there and receive, rather than seize, an education. This view mystifies me as well; is there anything which works that way?

Hyena writes:

@rpl

On principle: It doesn't bother me that, because I have less, others have more. In most cases I don't believe I've achieved any meaningful gain for myself, I'm just succumbing to biases and statusmongering. If the rest of you restrained yourselves a little, we'd all probably have more. We'd probably still have an economy too.

On computers: I do some database support for the Feds and computer skills are inversely proportional to age.

On college: It's a fair bit longer list than yours.

rpl writes:
It doesn't bother me that, because I have less, others have more.
Really? From the way you used expressions like "taken for a ride," I'd have guessed you disapproved of the situation. If it doesn't bother you, then why do you sound so judgmental about it? Or am I just misreading your tone?
If the rest of you restrained yourselves a little, we'd all probably have more.
Perhaps, but then if we all were to restrain ourselves, who would be using all that surplus that we'd have gained from exercising restraint?
I do some database support for the Feds and computer skills are inversely proportional to age.
I can think of a model where that would happen even if skill level were constant, or even increasing, with age. Can you?
On college: It's a fair bit longer list than yours.
It ought to be easy to come up with a few examples, then. Concrete examples are best, unless you're trying to claim creative writing as one of the skills you learned.
Mercer writes:

"socially sanctioned " rumspringa," the temporary moratorium from social responsibilities "

When 18 year olds go to a college away from home but paid for by their parents and taxpayers why do they need "rumspringa"?

"college graduates are unsettled nowadays because they did not really learn much."

As Byran points out college is mostly about signalling for future employers. At current prices it is a very expensive signalling mechanism. I think most graduates are unsure about their careers because they spent four years studying things that have little relevance to their working lives.

I don't think most graduates want to live with their parents. The message they get is that to be a mature American adult you should have a house of your own but it is way out of reach for young people in much of the country today so they delay settling down. If we continue with current zoning practices and high immigration levels the trend will continue.

Hyena writes:

@rpl

Java, basic data analysis, statistics, basic advertising management, graphic design and illustration, statics, architectural design, set theory, basic probability theory, evolutionary biology, population genetics, epistemology, art criticism, economics.

I've tapped what I gained studying all of these fields--sometimes in their technical and sometimes in their incisive capacity--to solve various problems.

If I were to list the most important of these, I'd say: basic probability theory, evolutionary biology, epistemology and economics. Graphic design has paid bills before, but always on the side. The basic insights of the top four have actually won me recognition and management status because I design better systems.

Hyena writes:

@Mercer

I think more twenty-somethings want to "move back in with their parents"--either literally or by convincing them to continue funding--than you think. It's a great way to build a capital base to do something like move far away from home. That's why I spent 9 months living with mine. It was hell, but it got me to California.

rpl writes:

Hyena,

Glad to hear it; it sounds like college did all right by you. Although I confess I'm dying to hear how you found a practical use for set theory (proving the existence of a choice function on an infinite database? ;-), I'd argue it's useful mental training in and of itself, even if you never use it for anything specifically.

Hyena writes:

@rpl

Computer science runs on set theory, so do database queries and the rest of data mining. Since that is the rough description of a third of my job, it's one of my closest, most cherished friends.

And then there is the value of writing in set notation on white boards. Obfuscation of that order gets you more leeway than asking nicely.

Hyena writes:

@rpl

In any case, I don't think university is necessarily useful or the best choice for a lot of people. Technical academies for programmers, engineers and so on would probably be superior alternatives in many cases.

I think most people learn a lot in college, they just fail to use it for very understandable reasons. I graduated as the recession swung in and moved to California. I've been remunerated for a greater diversity of skills than a lot of people as I bounced from job to job.

Even in the government, my real job has been "intrapreneur", setting up new systems and project management paradigms and bequeathing them to others. I've settled here because I have the technical and conceptual skills to make this project easy. Soon we'll wrap it all up and I'll be laid off.

Ryan Vann writes:

Speaking only for myself, the compensation for dealing with little inner city brats, or brats of any rural or urban designation, would have to be far more lucrative than a pauper's wages.

Disillusioned writes:

When I got out of the Marine Corps in 2000, I worked for a year at a factory that made parts for Honda. I made $9.80 an hour, worked about 55 hours a week, and often took home weekly checks a little over $600. Now I have two master's degrees and I'm a middle manager in government. I'm paid a salary of $49,500 and guess what I take home every week? $600. So yeah, I'm pissed I put all the work in and took on so much debt for my education to essentially make zero gains. The boot-straps story is bullshit - I'm proof. We're all serfs.

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