Sandra Mardin
Feb 26, 2015

Lagging behind or changing the rules: Redefining the 20s life stage

Are 20-somethings really 'lagging', or simply being forced to redefine what it means to be an adult? In this second installment of the Cultural Radar series, Sandra Mardin of Flamingo explores the situation and the need for a more affirming attitude toward this life stage.

Sandra Mardin
Sandra Mardin

A combination of major demographic shifts, dismal job opportunities and rising living costs has brought about the notion of the ‘lagging 20s’. This generation of 20-somethings who appear incapable of growing up is fertile ground for mainstream entertainment. But are they ‘lagging’ or are they simply redefining what it means to be an adult?

It started in the 00s with the archetypal man-child of Judd Apatow/ Seth Rogen ‘slacker-striver’ sub genre of comedies that paired slacker guys and striver girls destined to guide them on the path to adulthood. Forward a decade to the 2010s, and we are witnessing the emergence of the ‘female slacker’: from Leigh Stein’s The Fall Back Plan to HBO’s hit TV series “Girls” and last year’s rom com “Laggies”. All feature women in there 20s, stuck in a life stage - the intersection between adolescence and adulthood.

This may seem like a predominantly Western phenomenon, but we witness similar labels being attached to young people in Asia’s emerging markets too. As a result of the dramatic expansion in university education and rise in competition, many have become alienated and unable to join the growing middle class. Professor Craig Jeffrey has coined the term ‘timepass generation’ for India’s youth waiting for opportunities that never arrive. "Waiting has become a profession for these young people,” Jeffrey told BBC business news late last year, “Their parents are on their backs wanting them to get a job. But they don't have the English language skills or knowledge and confidence to be able to compete for the small number of, for example, IT sector jobs, that are emerging in India.” (BBC, 2014)

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

So far, the 20s life stage has been riddled with overtones of delay, boredom, immaturity, amplified teendom and nostalgia for adolescence. Meanwhile, we fail to acknowledge that our concept of adulthood is also changing. Nobody knows what being a grown up actually means anymore. As New York Times journalist, Anthony Oliver Scott writes: “We’ve witnessed the erosion of traditional adulthood in any form, at least as it used to be portrayed in the formerly tried-and-true genres of the urban cop show, the living-room or workplace sitcom and the prime-time soap opera. Instead, we are now in the age of “Girls,” “Broad City,” “Masters of Sex” (a prehistory of the end of patriarchy), “Bob’s Burgers” (a loopy post-"Simpsons” family cartoon) and a flood of goofy, sweet, self-indulgent and obnoxious improv-based web videos. What all of these shows grasp at, in one way or another, is that nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore.” (New York Times, 2014)

Not having a steady job, a mortgage and family by the age of 30 in reality doesn’t always imply idleness or extended hedonism; in fact, it can also mean managing several precarious income streams at once and being faced with daily uncertainty when it comes to housing and lacking support. In India one in three graduates up to the age of 29 is unemployed, according to a Labour Ministry report released in November 2013. In China, unemployment among new graduates six months after leaving university is officially around 15%. (BBC, 2014)

Sociologist, Lian Si, from Beijing-based University of International Business and Economics (UIBE), coined the phrase ‘ant tribe’ to refer to the post-1980s generation of under employed or underpaid Chinese graduates unable to fulfil their ambition. Likewise, The Centre for London think tank has dubbed the new class of young urban dwellers the “Endies,” which stands for the “Employed but with No Disposable Income or Savings”. The research states that to them, “Life is an endless treadmill of work, commuting and recovering at home.”

As a result, new generations are pushed to redefine success in choosing non-linear paths, versatility and adaptability over a well-defined roadmap. Could it be that rather than extended adolescence, which implies delayed maturity, the 20s are faced with an entirely new life stage with its own merits and challenges?

To sum up, we need new, more positive and affirming, language around this intersectional life stage. One that will challenge the implication of delay, slacking and lagging behind, because all these terms mean that the protagonist will eventually ‘grow up’ and settle in following in the footsteps of past generations. This simplistic view also implies that doing things differently is the equivalent of refusing to grow up, being selfish, irresponsible and ultimately self-destructive. This fails to recognise that what we are seeing is a broader redefining of the milestones of growing up and success in general.

Now that the milestones of progress are changing, we are left to question what ‘growing up’ will actually come to mean. 

Sandra Mardin, cultural intelligence, Flamingo


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