Leadership and Emerging Adulthood

KID: I just thought I’d take some time to try and find myself.

BILL COSBY: How long do you figure this will take?

KID: Oh, about 5-10 years.

BILL COSBY: Wow, you could find yourself plus a couple more people!

Rita Koganzon’s latest article in The New Atlantis tackles the topic of “emerging adulthood” and the mindset many 20-somethings have about adult life. As someone currently managing several “emerging adults,” I found her analysis provocative, and indirectly, it raised some important questions about leadership.

Koganzon chronicles academia’s recent efforts to justify the way many of us approached life post-high school. We went to college (whence we graduated unqualified to be adults), then worked three unpaid internships or charged off into the wild blue yonder to do Teach for America; we dated a bunch of people, maybe slept around or cohabited for a while, and eventually looked around and wondered why this voyage of self-discovery failed to help us “find ourselves” or even set us on a more clear career trajectory.

In contrast to The New York Times, Koganzon disapproves of this approach. She notices the common thread in all of this – a total absence of responsibility – and unlike the Times, thinks it actually hinders us from becoming functional adults.

“Emerging adulthood is rare in the developing world, [Arnett] says, where people have to grow up fast, and it’s often skipped in the industrialized world by the people who marry early, by teenage mothers forced to grow up, by young men or women who go straight from high school to whatever job is available without a chance to dabble until they find the perfect fit.”

Yet according to Koganzon, those developing-world kids actually become better adults. They didn’t treat their careers the way they treat dating. In modern dating, we follow a narcissistic approach that involves avoiding actual responsibilities and commitments while flailing around, shotgun-style, for a relationship that is the “perfect match.” Unless we get lucky, after several broken hearts, we’re no closer to Mr. or Mrs. Right than we were when we started.

Like Koganzon, I’ve seen the same problem in the approach some of my employees have to their jobs. All their lives, they’ve been catered to; they’ve been spoon-fed opportunities and they’ve always known what’s going to be handed to them next year. So they’re looking for the perfect job – right now – and too often are unwilling to do the grunt work on the way. They treat their employment as a selfish voyage of self-discovery rather than a privilege that carries with it responsibilities to supervisors. If they’re not happy in their work, it’s the fault of the boss or the system. As one of my fellow managers put it, “They won’t work unless I get on a table and dance for them.” Those employees are, literally as I write, being passed over for opportunities and promotions (i.e. chances to be happier).

In contrast, I have other young employees who treat their responsibilities – not Peace Corps-style breaks from real commitment – as voyages of self-discovery. Taking precisely the opposite view from the Times, they do even the smallest tasks thoroughly and well. And in their responsibilities, they are learning and growing, and getting opportunities and promotions from supervisors who know they can trust the kids to get the job done.

And – gasp – of the two groups, it is people in the second who are happy at work.

Koganzon looks briefly at the problem older or more mature people play in this:

“Ann Hulbert, the dean of the history of American childhood, has pointed out that the adults who have been so eager to legitimize emerging adulthood do not “seem to be asking themselves whether fixating on the phase will help twentysomethings outgrow it.” In a response in Slate to the Henig piece, she wrote, “Arnett’s new category perhaps says more about how parental figures think about young people than about how young people think about themselves (unless they’ve by now swallowed their elders’ theories).” What Henig and Arnett and their supporters have overlooked is the possibility that young people have in fact modeled themselves on their elders’ theories, and that the well-meaning army of parents and nonprofit administrators enlisted to support their self-explorations and self-realizations are merely exacerbating a delusion.”

Thinking back to my two kinds of employees, for those of us who take the second approach and must work with, or even supervise, “emerging adults” who take the first, there is a very real challenge. As good leaders, we try to understand our teams, motivate them, and give them opportunities to excel. But how far do we go? Do we get on the table and dance, to get the “emerging adults” to perform best? Or are we doing them a disservice by trying too hard to help them – by exacerbating a delusion?

It’s one thing to identify the problem and criticize it on a societal level, as Koganzon does. It’s another to deal with the reality of “emerging adults” in the workforce, and take the responsibility to awaken them to adulthood. The challenge of leadership today and tomorrow will be the challenge of fixing a generation’s worth of mistakes made by parents and educators. It requires the courage of direct confrontation, but unless the “emerging adults” are willing to respond to confrontation by fixing their own problems, there will be little leaders can do. We can’t fix things for them.


  • February 20, 2011

    Why Men Like Jane Austen «

    […] we can identify with, but who are “guys,” not men (Joey and Ross, Jerry and George)—emerging adults, if you will. In real life, we have none of these luxuries—we have to be men, and we have to do […]

  • March 16, 2011

    a jane austen man «

    […] we can identify with, but who are “guys,” not men (Joey and Ross, Jerry and George)—emerging adults, if you will. In real life, we have none of these luxuries—we have to be men, and we have to do […]

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  • July 5, 2014


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