Posted by: Tony Carson | 9 October, 2007

The Odyssey Years

Sometimes a newspaper column can really open your eyes. Like this one:

The Odyssey Years

By David Brooks, NY Times

There used to be four common life phases: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Now, there are at least six: childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement and old age. Of the new ones, the least understood is odyssey, the decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood.

During this decade, 20-somethings go to school and take breaks from school. They live with friends and they live at home. They fall in and out of love. They try one career and then try another.

Their parents grow increasingly anxious. These parents understand that there’s bound to be a transition phase between student life and adult life. But when they look at their own grown children, they see the transition stretching five years, seven and beyond. The parents don’t even detect a clear sense of direction in their children’s lives. They look at them and see the things that are being delayed.

They see that people in this age bracket are delaying marriage. They’re delaying having children. They’re delaying permanent employment. People who were born before 1964 tend to define adulthood by certain accomplishments — moving away from home, becoming financially independent, getting married and starting a family.

In 1960, roughly 70 percent of 30-year-olds had achieved these things. By 2000, fewer than 40 percent of 30-year-olds had done the same.

Yet with a little imagination it’s possible even for baby boomers to understand what it’s like to be in the middle of the odyssey years. It’s possible to see that this period of improvisation is a sensible response to modern conditions.

Two of the country’s best social scientists have been trying to understand this new life phase. William Galston of the Brookings Institution has recently completed a research project for the Hewlett Foundation. Robert Wuthnow of Princeton has just published a tremendously valuable book, “After the Baby Boomers” that looks at young adulthood through the prism of religious practice.

Through their work, you can see the spirit of fluidity that now characterizes this stage. Young people grow up in tightly structured childhoods, Wuthnow observes, but then graduate into a world characterized by uncertainty, diversity, searching and tinkering. Old success recipes don’t apply, new norms have not been established and everything seems to give way to a less permanent version of itself.

Dating gives way to Facebook and hooking up. Marriage gives way to cohabitation. Church attendance gives way to spiritual longing. Newspaper reading gives way to blogging. (In 1970, 49 percent of adults in their 20s read a daily paper; now it’s at 21 percent.)

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.

Social life is fluid. There’s been a shift in the balance of power between the genders. Thirty-six percent of female workers in their 20s now have a college degree, compared with 23 percent of male workers. Male wages have stagnated over the past decades, while female wages have risen.

This has fundamentally scrambled the courtship rituals and decreased the pressure to get married. 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.

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. Moreover, surveys show that people living through these years have highly traditional aspirations (they rate parenthood more highly than their own parents did) even as they lead improvising lives.

Rather, what we’re seeing is the creation of a new life phase, just as adolescence came into being a century ago. It’s a phase in which some social institutions flourish — knitting circles, Teach for America — while others — churches, political parties — have trouble establishing ties.

But there is every reason to think this phase will grow more pronounced in the coming years. European nations are traveling this route ahead of us, Galston notes. Europeans delay marriage even longer than we do and spend even more years shifting between the job market and higher education.

And as the new generational structure solidifies, social and economic entrepreneurs will create new rites and institutions. Someday people will look back and wonder at the vast social changes wrought by the emerging social group that saw their situations first captured by “Friends” and later by “Knocked Up.”


  1. See? Thats what I was doing. It was the intense competitive pressures… and beer.

  2. Ya, I did think of you and wondered if you’d ever snap out of it. Have you?

  3. Well, it seems to me that the article you presented says I couldn’t have, even if I tried.

    The idea of settling down, being “grown up” and directing my life toward security and the future was an alien, rather futile concept until I turned 27 or so. It wasn’t as though I didn’t think this would ever become more appealing, it just didn’t seem very relevant or desireable at the time.

    Looking back, this article presents that sort of disconnect between an older generation’s expectations and empathies, versus how I personally navigated my fortunes. The one thing nobody understood or understands, parents or children, was how the nature of security has changed.

    You don’t commit to marriage like before, because marriage isn’t as secure. You don’t commit to a career or job, because they are not secure. Most were herded toward committing to an education, but one they didn’t use. Not as secure.

    What changed when I was 27? Probably the ability to understand these insecurities, and develop foundations around them. I don’t know.

  4. Seems to me the greatest change between my generation (and the two before) and yours is that we saw ourselves, as you put it, committing to the security of a company while yours see yourselves as individual entrepreneurs. Your generation is more excited about the future than ours ever was, perhaps because you have an expectation of influencing it, while we never did.

  5. Its not about committing to security. It is that there isn’t any security. It isn’t that we strive to be entrepreneaurs, but have to be them.

    It isn’t a progressive created view, but a reaction.

    I also wouldn’t call it being excited about influencing the future, it is the cynicism of knowing you cannot give an inch. We might be hopeful of what is possible, because the alternative is stark disaffected nihilsm. But life, like everything else, has become “deregulated” neoliberalism.

  6. This article is scary medicine for a 20-something going on 30-something single working-class woman, especially when you factor in a healthy dose skepticism about the whole validity of the institution of marriage. This article by Brooks struck a cord. For me it means that women have to figure out—now more than ever—how to achieve happiness and fulfillment without men. Maybe this is an indication of the future for women of my generation. Perhaps it means that a lot more women will have time to get involved in their communities and shape policies for the betterment of all people. That is the bright side of things.


  7. It’s scary only because the future is so uncertain. But it’s better, isn’t it? The convention and social pressures that served women so poorly is gone, or going. What will take its place has to be better for you, even if its the need to learn to live as an individual, rather than the slave to a family unit. It’s going to have one hell of an impact on society though.

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