A new take on lifestage

New York Times journalist David Brooks has an interesting take on lifestage in his book The Social Animal.

He describes the odyssey years, ‘a decade of wandering that occurs between adolescence and adulthood’. He writes:

“Adulthood can be defined by four accomplishments: moving away from home, becoming financially independent, getting married and starting a family. In 1960, roughly 70 percent of American 30-year-olds had accomplished these things. By 2000, fewer than 40 percent had done the same.”

He argues we now pass through six lifestages:

Brooks suggests several reasons for this:

  1. People are living longer
  2. The economy is more complicated – broader career options mean it takes longer to find the right course
  3. Society is more segmented – so it takes longer to find the right niche
  4. Better access to education means women pursue careers before family
  5. Young people feel ambivalent about adulthood

The second point is key. Society provides lots support and guidance for children and teens: the education system is like a river which tightly channels them through. By contrast the jobs market is like a delta: they are left to find their own course.

“The job market is fluid. Graduating seniors don’t find corporations offering them jobs that will guide them all the way to retirement. Instead they find a vast menu of information economy options, few of which they have heard of or prepared for… The odyssey years are not about slacking off. There are intense competitive pressures as a result of the vast numbers of people chasing relatively few opportunities.”

Oversupply of graduates has led to academic inflation. From a decade of interviewing where I used to see a degree and work experience, I often now see a Masters and a series of internships. Some graduates are going to get started in 2011, many are not.

All this before our recent economic woes. Youth unemployment is now at 22%. The Institute for Fiscal Studies is forecasting a “lost decade” – meaning the average British family will be poorer in 2016 than they were in 2002.  

Two consequences spring to mind.

Short term: Inter-generational friction

Contrast the plight of the under 30s to that of their parents. In the UK baby boomers enjoyed free education & healthcare, relative job security, and a booming housing market. They are now entering their active retirement with record pension incomes.

As Jean Twenge writes in Generation Me:

“Today’s young people have been raised to aim for the stars at a time when it is more difficult than ever to get into college, find a good job, and afford a house. Their expectations are very high just as the world is becoming more competitive, so there’s a huge clash between their expectations and reality. More than any other generation in history, the children of Baby Boomers are disappointed by what they find when they arrive at adulthood.”

Disparity in wealth and life prospects has potential to cause inter-generational friction: Odysseus pitted against his father Laertes. Many of the placards at the Occupy Wall Street give us an indication – the younger participants calling to end tuition fees & boycott student loans.

Cary Cooper, Professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, sums up the zeitgeist in a recent article, we are seeing:

“…an exercise in civic frustration… People feel financial insecurity, job insecurity… They feel social insecurity and project it on to other people. They can’t get angry at the government or the bankers or economists or the NHS, so they take it out on others they can get to.”

Long term: Intra-generational imbalance – men lagging behind

The trend for girls to outperform boys at school now means they are more likely to get a degree; those with degrees earn more. As these changes work their way through the system unintended consequences abound.  Brooks again:

“Educated women can get many of the things they want (income, status, identity) without marriage, while they find it harder (or, if they’re working-class, next to impossible) to find a suitably accomplished mate.”

Kate Bolick’s much debated article lamenting the lack of eligible bachelors picks up this theme.

About Simon Shaw

I'm a Director at an insight consultancy. I'm interested in marketing, market research & consumer psychology. The views expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.
This entry was posted in Books, Demographic change, Marketing Research and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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