Richard Settersten, Jr. and Barbara Ray

26 January, 2011

We have heard a lot about how today’s twenty-somethings have been coddled by their overindulgent parents until they no longer want to work or move out on their own. Yet, Dr. Richard Settersten and Barbara E. Ray argue in Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing A Slower Path To Adulthood, And Why It’s Good for Everyone that we have this story wrong. This generation is not spoiled. They are simply responding  to a social and work environment that looks very different from the one their parents confronted at the same age. Their slower path to adulthood, in fact, is a path to a more secure future.

To back their conclusion, they draw on eight years of research from the MacArthur Network on Transitions to Adulthood, along with nearly five hundred interviews conducted across the United States.

Settersten and Ray divide today’s twenty and early thirty-somethings into two groups: “swimmers” and “treaders.” Swimmers take advantage of the safety net provided by a slower path to adulthood to complete their educations, build their careers, put aside savings, and take other steps designed to allow them to do well in life. It isn’t failure to launch, but a need to get their ducks solidly in a row to avoid serious setbacks. It is far too easy today to dig oneself into a deep hole, and much harder to get out of that hole.  Going slowly simply makes more sense today.

On the other hand, treaders often rush into adulthood, but then struggle to find their feet. By rushing too quickly, they shortchange their educations, , become mired in low-wage jobs, and marry and start families too soon.

Throughout the book, the authors invert many of the common beliefs about the current generation, from why they end up in debt to the reasons they often move from job to job to their supposed lack of work ethic. The importance of education  to a secure future is a central theme in the book,  not only differentiating those who succeed from those who don’t, but also determining the type of work young adults do, where they live (and for how long), when they marry, and even whether they vote.

Not Quite Adults has been extensively praised for its wide-ranging, accessible, and sometimes counter-intuitive analysis by everyone from the “Economist,” which wrote that the book “offers a valuable portrait of the diverging destinies of young people today,” to the “Boston Globe,” which said that Not Quite Adults “builds a strong case that launching into adulthood has never been more fraught with uncertainty,” and  “The Telegraph,” which proclaimed it “the book all families need to read.” Kay Hymowitz, author of Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys, called the book “perhaps the most important contribution to date about the strange new life of America’s 20-somethings.”

The authors have been interviewed throughout the media, speaking with Salon, USA Today, BBC, the Leonard Lopate Show, and many more about their research. They can be found online at: www.notquiteadults.com/

–Caroline Patton