We’re Only as Happy as Our Unhappiest Child

Recession is an interesting prism by which to examine our modern society. The scarcity of jobs a century ago, led to an abolishment of child labor, an extension of the educational system to accommodate these out-of-work children, and a development of new laws to serve them. Most importantly, dire economic conditions were the direct cause behind the “discovery” of a new stage of life: adolescence.

The current economic hardship is particularly difficult on the 18 to 30 demographic. These “adults” are struggling to find jobs, life-long relationships, educational opportunities, and self-fulfillment. The term failure to launch is coined to describe the restlessness and ambiguity felt by this population. Dr. Jeffrey J. Arnett describes this phase of life as emerging adulthood: “Instead of entering marriage and parenthood in their very early twenties, most people now postpone these transitions until at least their late twenties, and spend their late teens through their mid-twenties in self-focused exploration as they try out different possibilities in love and work. Essentially, a new developmental stage has been created between adolescence and young adulthood.” [http://www.jeffreyarnett.com]

Dr. Arnett discusses the internal traits that define his newly-proposed phase of life:

  • identity exploration
  • instability in work, relationships, living circumstances
  • self-focus
  • a feeling of “in-between”
  • a general sense of “possibilities”

This list seems to translate into external traits—personality traits that can be easily observed by others as apposed to internal feelings—that correspond to a Probing Personality Profile:

  • risk taking
  • comfort with uncertainty
  • openness to options and need to keep options open
  • search for chances to do what’s wanted as opposed to what’s needed
  • avoidance of commitments (in life and work)
  • push of decision-making into the future

Probing Personality types are complimented by individuals with Scheduling Personality Profiles (defined by a need to plan, strong aversion to uncertainty, and comfort in scheduling personal time and options). According to David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates, the authors of 1984 book “Please Understand Me: Character & Temperament Types,” data used to show an equal distribution of Probers and Schedulers in US. Since their data came mostly from college campuses, it would seem Keirsey and Bates were evaluating individuals from the Arnett-defined Emerging Adulthood Phase of Life.

As a society, US tends to value some personality traits over others. We believe Extraverts to be superior to Introverts. Introverted individuals, we think, all want to be more extraverted. The result is the three to one distribution of extraverts to introverts in US, again according to Keirsey and Bates. Other cultures show distributions according to their own value judgments (think Japan). Clearly, valuing one personality trait over another has an impact.

It seems that recent changes in our society—the need for more years of education, comfort with pre-marital sex, easily available contraception and delay in child-bearing, the rise of free or low-paying internships, acceptance of living at home with parents—together with a downturn in economy created a new value judgement favoring the Probing Personality traits among the 18 to 30 demographic. It would be interesting to see if this age group does indeed form a new phase of life, Emerging Adulthood, or whether it represents a shift in US social value system.

In the mean time, while some of these emerging adults might be enjoying their newly found stage of life, others (the scheduling-types) might struggle with it. And as parents, we are only as happy as our unhappiest children.

For an interesting discussion on this issue, please check out New York Times article: “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” dated August 18, 2010 by Robin Marantz Henig.