An interesting look at the extended adolescence phenomenon in the NY Times Magazine. Much of the article is devoted to brain development and the current debate as to whether 20-somethings constitute a new stage in human development, etc. But the crux of the matter boils down to two questions: Why are people growing up later than they used to? And is that a good or bad thing?

This blogger might argue that it’s both: the retreat from conventional responsibilities and commitments can unleash tremendous creativity and self-expression in young people, giving them room and freedom to be changed by external forces rather than conform to them out of mere obligation. But it can also become an exercise in self-indulgence, or worse, foster the kind of imprisoning self-focus/inwardness that ends in despair. After all, commitments and responsibilities, like The Law, can often teach us more about ourselves than a year traveling abroad, e.g. failure to fulfill one’s responsibilities has a way of engendering the sort of self-knowledge that is truly freeing. But it can also be profoundly defeating. Meanwhile, the law of “finding yourself,” while liberating for those who’re struggling against someone’s else’s idea of who they need to be, can be just as harsh to those who truly don’t know. I suppose both options, the embracing of responsibilities or the postponement of them, can have the same effect; one man’s Law is another man’s Gospel.

Or perhaps it’s much less complicated than that. Perhaps both options are simply two different ways of dealing with life’s “oughts,” flipsides of the same Law-shaped coin, an elder brother-prodigal dynamic, alternate answers to the same thoroughly wrong-headed question – further illustration of the thirst for glory needing to be extinguished rather than quenched. What do you think? A few excerpts from the article (ht JD):

Getting to what we would generally call adulthood is happening later than ever. But why? That’s the subject of lively debate among policy makers and academics. To some, what we’re seeing is a transient epiphenomenon, the byproduct of cultural and economic forces. To others, the longer road to adulthood signifies something deep, durable and maybe better-suited to our neurological hard-wiring. What we’re seeing, they insist, is the dawning of a new life stage — a stage that all of us need to adjust to.

Just as adolescence has its particular psychological profile, [Clark University psychologist Jeffrey Jensen] Arnett says, so does emerging adulthood: identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between and a rather poetic characteristic he calls “a sense of possibilities.” A few of these, especially identity exploration, are part of adolescence too, but they take on new depth and urgency in the 20s. The stakes are higher when people are approaching the age when options tend to close off and lifelong commitments must be made. Arnett calls it “the age 30 deadline.”

Is emerging adulthood a rich and varied period for self-discovery, as Arnett says it is? Or is it just another term for self-indulgence?

“During the period he calls emerging adulthood, Arnett says that young men and women are more self-focused than at any other time of life, less certain about the future and yet also more optimistic, no matter what their economic background. This is where the “sense of possibilities” comes in, he says; they have not yet tempered their ideal­istic visions of what awaits. “The dreary, dead-end jobs, the bitter divorces, the disappointing and disrespectful children . . . none of them imagine that this is what the future holds for them,” he wrote. Ask them if they agree with the statement “I am very sure that someday I will get to where I want to be in life,” and 96 percent of them will say yes. But despite elements that are exciting, even exhilarating, about being this age, there is a downside, too: dread, frustration, uncertainty, a sense of not quite understanding the rules of the game. More than positive or negative feelings, what Arnett heard most often was ambivalence — beginning with his finding that 60 percent of his subjects told him they felt like both grown-ups and not-quite-grown-ups.”

Does [this[ mean it’s a good thing to let 20-somethings meander — or even to encourage them to meander — before they settle down? That’s the question that plagues so many of their parents. It’s easy to see the advantages to the delay. There is time enough for adulthood and its attendant obligations; maybe if kids take longer to choose their mates and their careers, they’ll make fewer mistakes and live happier lives. But it’s just as easy to see the drawbacks. As the settling-down sputters along for the “emerging adults,” things can get precarious for the rest of us. Parents are helping pay bills they never counted on paying, and social institutions are missing out on young people contributing to productivity and growth. Of course, the recession complicates things, and even if every 20-something were ready to skip the “emerging” moratorium and act like a grown-up, there wouldn’t necessarily be jobs for them all. So we’re caught in a weird moment, unsure whether to allow young people to keep exploring and questioning or to cut them off and tell them just to find something, anything, to put food on the table and get on with their lives.