Stuck in the jalopy of youth

It was a typical autumn reunion. Dan, Eric, and I after surfing at Zuma Beach got together and simply sat around in Dan's garage while he fiddled with some gadget. We didn't charge out to night clubs or movies in the fashion of adults looking for entertainment, we just slouched and joked and cadged food from Dan's fridge. One night long ago Eric scurried out of the garage holding a frozen pie like a football. Now peach juice drips off his chin.

''You haven't changed in 10 years,'' I say, reflecting on the years we've spent growing up.

The fact is, nothing has changed, and neither do I think we've grown up. Instead we represent a widespread feature of this era: young people who remain young people. This sounds awful. However, there is no denying it - and I speak as one afflicted: People my age are slower in letting go of apron strings - and purse strings - than our predecessors.

It's not exactly that we act like kids, it is that we are unwilling to become adults. We are vexed by maturity. We get older and our experience is broad, yet we avoid, sometimes reject, steps that would make us accept the life style responsibilities of adulthood.

Dan is the only one of us who holds a job considered a career. He is a firefighter and he still lives at home. When he's not speeding to some calamity, his mother is telling him to hurry up and pick his dirty clothes off the floor.

Eric is also 24. He is entering his seventh year of college, financially supported by his parents, living rent free with his brother. He has attended four different colleges and taken summer school six years. He owns no car, has no insurance, no savings, and still has no bachelor's degree. He has averaged 17 units a semester and is a biochemistry major. He isn't stupid, he simply fails classes and ignores the advice of counselors and teachers.

Like Eric's, my parents paid for my schooling, though I graduated in the customary four years. I worked for seven months as a newspaperman and then took off for the East Coast for a girl, settling in North Carolina to write a column for a newspaper.

Now I'm home with no car, no credit cards, little savings, no job, and now no girl. The times I've come home have been marked by reunions with my friends, surfing trips, lazy days on the patio and in the garage, visitors at mealtimes, guests like Eric, and rueful confrontations with my parents, who expect an adult and not a 23-year-old adolescent, mired in youthful cliches about borrowing the family car, mowing the lawn, etc.

My parents have many friends whose children live at home, too, kids in their 20s who are still dependent financially and/or emotionally on their parents.

''The problem with my generation,'' says my mother, ''is that we're caught in the middle. We're taking care of our parents while still nursing our kids.''

She's right. Why is my generation like this? Simple. It is the age of the Second Chance, and the Third Chance, and the Fourth Chance, and the. . . .

Instead of being pushed out of the house at 18, young people linger on. Usually they go to college. Most attend locally and thus live at home because it is cheaper. What they don't admit is that it is easier too.

Some get on the education treadmill, grow dissatisfied, and leave, like Dan. Or they grind it out in pursuit of a degree, like Eric. Some even graduate.

If they leave home or go to work, the hang-on attitudes persist: that going home is always an alternative, when once it wasn't; that parents have the resources to help their kids out and will use them unsparingly, when once they didn't; and that the fun days of adolescence can and will be relived, when once many people were married at my age or grimly sticking out a job.

My peers are not lazy. But, brought up as they are in cribs ringed by safety nets, young people don't worry as much about falling.

This is a somewhat despairing route of appraisal. But I know many more people like Dan and Eric and me. While succeeding or coping in other endeavors of life, they cannot quite climb out of the jalopy of youth and leave the influence - or sometimes the credit cards - of Mom and Dad.

Unlike other eras, today presents no wars, severe crises, or precedents to act for youths as clean, clear transitions into adulthood. It is a forgiving, compassionate age, the first where, as Mom says, ''kids have not been pushed out on their own.''

So there sit Eric and I eating peaches, talking about swimming pools and skateboards - as we did a dozen years ago.

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