Adultescents and the Paralysis of Choice

There is as much to be said about Sally Koslow’s Slouching Towards Adulthood as there […]

There is as much to be said about Sally Koslow’s Slouching Towards Adulthood as there is to be said about the entire cultural “issue” of emerging adults and its derivative platter of opinions. A mother of two adult boys who “have finally moved out,” Koslow speaks candidly and with humor about the parental experience of the adultescent, a term she defines as, “Americans twenty-two to thirty-five caught between adolescence and adulthood in an exploration that seems to go on forever, like the Rolling Stones.” Using her “adultescent” years and then her parenting years as a guide, she demarcates the differences between boomer and, ahem, blogger generations and sets out a very readable and well-researched analysis of what went wrong.

Still something doesn’t sit well. Maybe it’s because I’m the offended here, because I have been one of those Facebooking Americorps Fantasy-Life Idealists, one of those who “frequently ask to help them move from place to place; create a mess; rack up debt; develop attitudes about money;” et cetera, et cetera. Maybe that’s why, but it also may be Koslow’s unabashed condescension, her annoyance with the whole experience-seeker lifestyle, and her at times self-justifying, even self-congratulatory defenses on how her twenties were far and away more maturely progress-headed. In short, at times, she sounds like a total–ugh–parent.

Either way, despite the Tigerly nag, her coy observations hit the nail on the head in regard to what adultescents face below the surface. She’s very good at seeing underlying motivations as well as generational plagues that haven’t always been there, and she does point the gun of responsibility back at the boomers. It’s one of those cases where the diagnosis is spot on, but the prognosis falls short. She’s very good at seeing why Peter, 24, is living at home with his parents “paying all his bills, because he can’t afford health insurance or a cell phone or school loans,” but she’s not always prescient on the cure.

One of those amazing insights, though, is her perspective on our generation’s bondage to choice. Koslow discerns in this demographic how choice, something anyone would say they like to have, ends up paralyzing those who make it their objective. The idol-factory of choices has made this generation a passionate generation of prodigals. Running from home to crowd-source an experience.

Any-hoo, choices. I’ve noticed that having too many options leads to snow blindness. It’s not just Aunt Sally’s wisdom: studies support the brain-draining oppression that multiple choices bring. Seemingly limitless possibility paralyzes us, a dilemma that social psychologist Sheena Iyengar, Ph.D., from Columbia University’s School of Business, refers to as the paradox of choice in The Art of Choosing. In one experiment, Dr. Iyengar showed how shoppers who chose from more options were less happy with their purchases than those with more limited opportunities. “When faced with two dozen varieties of jam in a grocery store, for example, or lots of investment options for their pension plan, people often chose arbitrarily to walk away without making any choice at all, rather than labor to make a reasoned choice,” reports Gretchen Rubin in her best-selling book, The Happiness Project.

A jam is the state in which many adultescents find themselves at graduation, feeling their lives are lousy with choices after they’ve been handed their bachelor’s degrees. They hear the echo of their parents’ trope wishing them Godspeed. Find your passion! The money will follow! You can be anything you want to be! Of course it helps that they’ve heard these mantras all their lives. By the time the diploma ink dries, many recent graduates begin to embrace the idea of life being one infinite Friendly’s menu.

Assuredly, some graduates take their bachelor’s degrees and head straight to med school or Wall Street or public service. Applications for AmeriCorps positions, for example, nearly tripled to 258,829 in 2010 from 91,399 in 2008, the New York Times reports. Yet with bravado that astonishes most of their parents, many adultescents don’t do the obvious and become instead stars in their own reality dramas. They pick a direction, reverse it, spin the dial, turn thirty degrees, win an all-expenses-paid free ticket to Bangladesh, start a novel, stay in a village with no paved roads, plumbing or electricity but stellar cell service, crowd-source their next move on Facebook, get an MBA, jet to Equatorial Guinea, regroup in Kalamazoo, study an Eastern spiritual practice whose name their parents can’t remember or pronounce, start a job, quit, ditch the novel and begin a screenplay, take a break to play more reindeer games, find a shaman, burn the half-finished screenplay, go to law school, where tuition has jacked up four times faster than the soaring costs of college, accrue vast loans, drop out, become a shaman, sell their car and fill a self-storage unity with their worldly possessions. Only then do they fly two stars to the right, straight on till morning.

“We live better than kings,” Ari Siegel, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, exclaims. That is, assuming you have some modest baksheesh at your disposal. “You book a flight anywhere in the world online and can be there the next day. You can function as an anthropologist, seeing things from a lot of different angles, living out The Sun Also Rises. Travel is an escape…although,” he adds, when catches his breath, “the overwhelming amount of choice can create a person who doesn’t have much of his own identity.”



9 responses to “Adultescents and the Paralysis of Choice”

  1. Page says:

    Having just graduated in December I dealt with this for a long time before and after graduation. I didn’t know what the heck to do with myself. It’s overwhelming having so many choices and having to deal with so much anticipated regret along with all the new expenses I acquired after graduation. Maybe it’s settling but I like to limit my choices so that I can limit my regret. I just took the first job offered, it’s not the best but I’m paying down my debt and I like where I’m at. I trust this door was opened for a reason.

  2. Page says:

    Also there’s an interesting TedTalks lecture on this situation.

  3. Sally Koslow says:


    Hello from the Tigerly nag, with thanks for your fair, honest and interesting review of my book, Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest.

    Thank you.

  4. Blaine Lay says:

    Yes. The paradox of choice is indeed just that. Schwartz (referenced in the TED talk above) wrote a book on that. It gave me so much insight on the anxiety I feel when trying to decide– whether the choice is a brand of toilet paper, a career, or a spouse. In the final years of my twenties, I’m figuring out how to limit my options and make lasting commitments. It certainly isn’t easy.

  5. Al Riz says:

    I’m 29 years old, married and have two kids. I’m an adultescents. I got a good job, I quit. I got a scholarship, I quit. I got bored real quickly. All my money comes from my Mommy and Daddy. I only have 35 possessions. Most of them shirts. One wallet. You get the idea. In total, me and my wife and kids only have less than 100 possessions. But we’re quite well. I’m not planning to work. I plan to make sure my kids never get to school because school is not cool. They can either homeschool or unschool all the way up to college years with open university. The school system and work systems should change.

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