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Book Review: Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck? by Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig

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Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?, in which mother and daughter journalists Robin Marantz Henig (a fiftysomething) and Samantha Henig (a twentysomething) examine the perception that “emerging adults” are taking so much longer to actually emerge than previous generations, is admittedly not a scientific study of the subject.

While the authors have made good use of a fair share of the available psychological and sociological studies, much of what they have to say is based on a self-created questionnaire sent to friends and acquaintances and returned at random, not necessarily making for the most reliable of samples. That said, they have written a captivating account of what life is like for twentysomethings and those who love them—and they really don’t pretend to be writing an academic treatise.

Are twentysomethings, the authors ask, really any different now than they were back in the day? Their answer lies in the comparison between today’s “Millennials” and the twentysomethings of the past, specifically that group most likely to be their parents, the baby boomers. Not a bad idea, since they can speak for those groups from personal experience.

The book takes eight chapters to compare and contrast the two generations in a number of different areas—education, love and marriage, career choice—the kinds of life choices emerging adults have been required to make for time in memoriam.

The Henigs discuss topics like the effects of the economic downturn on the twentysomethings, the burden created by student loans, and the need for more and more education. They talk women’s decisions to put off having children until later in life. They deal with the difficulty of making choices—be it as important as the choice of a life partner or as insignificant as a friend with whom to spend an evening—when there are so many possibilities. Every choice is a rejection of all those other possibilities, all those other choices that might have been better.

Each chapter is divided into two parts. “Now is new” examines how twentysomethings today deal with their world. So for example, people it would seem are less interested in committing to a career early in life. They are more open to experimenting with a variety of options, and once again there are so many to choose from. “Same as it ever was” looks at the world of the baby boomers and points out that they were encouraged to do what they loved, which it turns out is not always the best advice. After all, what you love at age 20 may not be so appealing at age 40. Regret for the road not taken is not just a poem.

Chapters end with a short summary with bullet points for each of the generations, and in an analogy to a boxing match each chapter or “round” is awarded to the situation of the Millennials as either something new or same as it ever was. Twentysomething ends by adding up the rounds and declaring a winner. No spoiler here—you’ll need to read the book to get the answer.
And reading the book is no great chore, even for an old codger long past his twentysomethings and his boomer years as well.

There is a lot of amusing give and take between the co-authors. Neither is shy about stepping out in their own voice and good naturedly teasing about their own relationship. They talk about themselves honestly and it is easy to feel comfortable with them. Indeed, I’m not sure that I wouldn’t have welcomed a lot more of their banter and personal history. I was often more interested in that than in some of the academic summary.

Todays twentysomethings are tomorrow’s fiftysomethings. They may, as some statistics seem to indicate, be choosing to have their children later in life, but at some point they’ll be looking at their own twentysomethings and more than likely asking why they seem to be stuck. They will look at how the world has changed since their own twenties, and they will worry about the way whatever they are calling the Millennials are dealing with those changes. They’ll be asking, is this the new new or is it the same as it ever was? And they’ll probably come to much the same conclusions reached by the Henigs.

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About Jack Goodstein