Has road to adulthood suddenly gotten longer?

It is not unusual today for college graduates to take time off after graduation -- for a trip to Europe, perhaps, or just one more summer lifeguarding at the beach. For many young people, however, ``one more summer'' has become almost a decade, according to Susan Littwin, author of the recently published ``The Postponed Generation'' (William Morrow & Co., New York, $16.95). These young adults, uncertain about the future, are remaining dependent on their parents -- financially and emotionally -- and postponing decisions about careers and relationships, she contends.

Sociologists and psychologists interviewed for this story had not read Littwin's book, but they all basically agreed with her observations. Each, however, had a different idea for the cause of this trend.

For the most part, Ms. Littwin concludes, these children are a product of the affluent, independent 1960s -- a time when expansion, experimentation, and the importance of individuality were accepted as normal.

``We did a lot of wonderful things,'' says Littwin, a journalist and mother of two teen-aged sons, in an interview with the Monitor. ``We gave them self-esteem, developed their interests, their creativity. We convinced them that they were special.''

What happened, she continues, is that children of the middle and upper classes grew up believing they were entitled to an interesting job, a livable income, their individuality and specialness.

Although David Elkind, a professor of child study at Tufts University, agrees that economic independence is postponed for young people today, he suggests it is postponed for emotional reasons. ``Children today are pushed into adulthood too soon,'' says Dr. Elkind. He believes that many of today's children are overextended -- too much of their time is taken up with organized activities, and there isn't enough time for them to relax and be by themselves. ``These kids are mourning for a lost childhood. It is not a postponement as much as a recapturing of the childhood they never had.''

The children brought up during the 1960s were not the only ones influenced by the freedom of this decade, others point out. ``If one says things like marriage or so-called `adult' responsibilities are being postponed, the fact is that adults don't take these responsibilities seriously themselves anymore,'' says Neil Postman, a well-known educator and author of ``The Disappearance of Childhood.''

``Adults already dress like the young,'' says Dr. Postman. ``They like the same music and movies as the young. They don't vote any more in any greater percentage than the young. So that while . . . there is a sort of postponement of theoretical adult responsibilities, the point has to be raised as to whether or not these responsibilities that are being postponed mean anything to the adult world. . . .''

Not only has society changed over the last 20 years, but its values have also changed, says Littwin. ``It's no longer acceptable to help people,'' she says. In the '60s and '70s ``soft'' values were important -- it was great to be a teacher or a social worker. But in the 1980s, she continues, an individual's value is measured by what he or she can produce.

Today's youth are the first generation to anticipate a lower standard of living than their parents. ``We've had an oil embargo, inflation, a recession. Companies are tightening their belts,'' she says. These children, feeling there is no way they can land a job that will allow them to live in the style to which they've become accustomed, end up staying home or taking jobs that pay just enough to keep them clothed and fed.

``Young people feel they have less opportunity [today] than young people did 30 years ago,'' adds Ralph Whitehead, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, who studies the way the postindustrial society is affecting the baby-boom generation. ``Stable employment is a thing of the past in this country.''

Both college graduates and other workers face the same economic problems. But the difference is that ``jobs that are frustrating the college kids are less likely to frustrate the `new collar' worker,'' says Whitehead. He defines a ``new collar'' worker as a nonwhite-collar worker earning between $20,000 and $40,000.

``And while the `purebred' new-collar worker will stay in the same job as long as the company will keep him,'' he says, ``the college kids can move on and up in a year or two.''

It is important to note that the lack of jobs for college graduates depends on the region, says Whitehead. Certain areas, especially Massachusetts and southern California, are saturated with graduates, while in places such as Mississippi the reverse is true -- there is a shortage of college-educated job seekers.

On the positive side of things, Whitehead believes that the number of jobs requiring college education is beginning to grow, and eventually the shape of the job market will catch up with the sophistication of the work force.

Littwin also believes that although young people are taking longer to grow up, they are eventually accepting the responsibilities of adulthood. By the time most young people approach 30, they are making their own decisions, solving their own problems, and becoming financially independent.

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