The Odyssey Years
By DAVID BROOKS
Published: October 9, 2007
The Way We Live Now
There used to be four common life phases: childhood,
adolescence, adulthood and old age. Now, there are at least six:
childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement
and old age. Of the new ones, the least understood is odyssey,
the decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence
and adulthood. During this decade, 20-somethings go to school
and take breaks from school. They live with friends and they live
at home. They fall in and out of love. They try one career and
then try another.
Their parents grow increasingly anxious. These
parents understand that there's bound to be a transition phase
between student life and adult life. But when they look at their
own grown children, they see the transition stretching five years,
seven and beyond. The parents don't even detect a clear sense
of direction in their children's lives. They look at them and
see the things that are being delayed. They see that people in
this age bracket are delaying marriage. They're delaying having
children. They're delaying permanent employment. 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.
Yet with a little imagination it's possible
even for baby boomers to understand what it's like to be in the
middle of the odyssey years. It's possible to see that this period
of improvisation is a sensible response to modern conditions.
Two of the country's best social scientists have been trying to
understand this new life phase. William Galston of the Brookings
Institution has recently completed a research project for the
Hewlett Foundation. Robert Wuthnow of Princeton has just published
a tremendously valuable book, "After the Baby Boomers"
that looks at young adulthood through the prism of religious practice.
Through their work, you can see the spirit of
fluidity that now characterizes this stage. Young people grow
up in tightly structured childhoods, 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.
Dating gives way to Facebook and hooking up.
Marriage gives way to cohabitation. Church attendance gives way
to spiritual longing. Newspaper reading gives way to blogging.
(In 1970, 49 percent of adults in their 20s read a daily paper;
now it's at 21 percent.)
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.
Social life is fluid. There's been a shift in the balance of power
between the genders. Thirty-six percent of female workers in their
20s now have a college degree, compared with 23 percent of male
workers. Male wages have stagnated over the past decades, while
female wages have risen.
This has fundamentally scrambled the courtship
rituals and decreased the pressure to get married. Educated women
can get many of the things they want (income, status, identity)
without marriage, while they find it harder (or, if they're working-class,
next to impossible) to find a suitably accomplished mate.
The odyssey years are not about slacking off.
There are intense competitive pressures as a result of the vast
numbers of people chasing relatively few opportunities. Moreover,
surveys show that people living through these years have highly
traditional aspirations (they rate parenthood more highly than
their own parents did) even as they lead improvising lives.
Rather, what we're seeing is the creation of
a new life phase, just as adolescence came into being a century
ago. It's a phase in which some social institutions flourish --
knitting circles, Teach for America -- while others -- churches,
political parties -- have trouble establishing ties.
But there is every reason to think this phase
will grow more pronounced in the coming years. European nations
are traveling this route ahead of us, Galston notes. Europeans
delay marriage even longer than we do and spend even more years
shifting between the job market and higher education.
And as the new generational structure solidifies,
social and economic entrepreneurs will create new rites and institutions.
Someday people will look back and wonder at the vast social changes
wrought by the emerging social group that saw their situations
first captured by "Friends" and later by "Knocked