Lost Rites of Passage for the Lost Generation [Part II]

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MASAI BRIDE/Photo: Michael Moffa

Part II: The 3,4 or 5 “C”s

“Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard University, said young people ‘will be scarred and they will be called the “lost generation”—in that their careers would not be (headed) the same way if we had avoided this economic disaster.”—Associated Press, September 22, 2011, “Census: Recession takes big toll on young adults”

Being unable to leave home, examined in Part I of this two-part analysis, is one of the most obvious lost “rites of passage” into adulthood among what is being called the “lost generation”. For far too many, as a lost ritual of maturation, it is also part and parcel of the emotional and social baggage reluctantly kept at home with the other rites of passage put in storage for the time being and the indefinite spooky future.  The other lost rites of passage include

  • Marrying: The AP September 22, 2011 article, “Census: Recession takes big toll on young adults”, cited in Part I of this 2-part analysis, describes what it calls the “young adults of the lost generation” ,  as “in record numbers…struggling to find work, shunning long-distance moves to live with mom and dad, delaying marriage and raising kids out of wedlock, if they’re becoming parents at all.” Citing U.S. data, the article reported, “Marriages fell to a record low last year of just 51.4 percent among adults 18 and over, compared with 57 percent in 2000. Among young adults 25-34, marriage was at 44.2 percent, also a new low. ” Now compare the overall marriage rate in 1950 with the base year of 2000 mentioned in the AP data: “In 1950 there were 211 marriages per 1000 women, as compared with just 82 in 2000 (out of non-widows between 18 and 64).”

Hidden in these data is the fact that marriage as a rite of passage into adulthood has not only taken a nosedive because of preferences for prolonging, if not permanently choosing the single life and its rewards;  because of the increasing costs associated with it; because of increasingly cynical attitudes toward marriage; because of the reduced cultural pressure to marry and high rates of simple cohabitation or common-law marriage making traditional marriage less attractive or inevitable, but also because some, perhaps many, of those who want it are being bashed by the soul-grinding recession.

Is the recession making it harder for women to do what they traditionally have done—“marry up”, and therefore wait longer until they can, if they ever will? “Hypergamy”—the tendency for a person to “marry up” to a higher rung on the socioeconomic ladder, or at least to not “marry down”—may take a heavy toll on marriage among unemployed males in very traditional, stratified cultures, such as India, where female hypergamy has been the traditional norm.

However, given the increasing numbers of American men marrying women with better jobs and higher education (one estimate, discussed below, being that 28% of marriages in the U.S. have such reversed educational levels) being added to the numbers of women correspondingly still doing the same, it is unclear how, whether or not, or to what degree a preference for hypergamy (male or female) is impacting marriage rates in the U.S.

Still, and especially for degreed minority women, the odds against being able to marry up, if they want to, have increased:

“Yet, the concern of the colloquium participants was a growing trend of women marrying men who were less educated and earned less money than they did. Minority women expressed the greatest concern … and with reason. According to the [Andrew] Sum study [“The Growing Gender Gaps in College Enrollment and Degree Attainment in the U.S. and Their Potential Economic and Social Consequences,], ‘in 1999-2000, for every 100 degrees awarded to Black men, Black women were awarded 188 associate degrees, 192 bachelor degrees, and 221 master’s degrees.’ Hispanic women earned nearly 130 degrees for every 100 awarded to Hispanic men. Sum concluded that highly educated women would have to consider “marrying down.” He labeled the prospect as “a serious economic and cultural problem.” (Fox News)

Even though this education gap is a variable independent of the recession, diminished employment opportunities for degreed men can only compound its effects. But, degrees aside, dollars of income prima facie tell a similar story. According to U.S. Census data for 2009, in the period from 1990 to 2009, the income of “male householder, no spouse present” (in “constant 2009 dollars”),  plunged from $46, 210 to $41,501—a drop of 11%, while that of “female householder, no spouse present” rose from $26,937 to $29,770—an increase of almost 10% and a net percentage spread of 21% (or in pure dollar terms an evolved gender gap of $7,542 that didn’t exist in 1990).

As for married couples, there are these role-reversal statistics cited in an April 2011 Manhattan Institute for Policy report:

“As of 2007, 22% of wives were earning more than their husbands; that’s an impressive increase since 1970, when the number was only 4%. The percentage of couples where women have more schooling has also grown. Twenty-eight percent of wives have more education than their husbands; that is true of only 19% of husbands. The numbers were almost exactly the reverse in 1970, when 28% of husbands had more education, compared to 20% of wives.”

But then there’s cohabitation—doesn’t that count as a rite of passage that is an alternative to traditional marriage?  Although it functions as an alternative or escape for the otherwise “home-bound”, “homing clay-pigeon” forced to return to the parental nest, to the extent that it is merely an extension of the co-ed dorm living arrangement, it seems it is likely to stop short of full-form marriage, as a cultural, social, financial and psychological rite of passage.

In any case, for young men and women who want to marry, but are unable to because of employment-related constraints, marriage as a cultural rite of passage into autonomous, responsible, formally acknowledged adulthood is taking a huge hit from the still deep and depressing recession.

That’s what happens to some in the lost generation when every recruiter says “sorry”.

  • Having sex: Having a rite of passage undone can be just as bad, or even worse, than having it denied. How can a rite of passage be undone? The Masai’s first lion kill can’t be resurrected. True. But, to the degree that a rite of passage involves “rights of passage”, revocation or abrogation of those rights will be tantamount to the reversal of the rite of passage. The adult “right to sex” and the corresponding rite of passage that created it can—and are, being reversed this way, in one form of what is called “involuntary celibacy”.

Defined by Georgia State University sociologists Denise Donnelly and Elisabeth Burgess as an unwanted six-month (or longer) period of abstinence, “incel”, as it is been informally termed, has not been paid much academic attention, so data are sparse and the categories of people and circumstances the concept covers are too numerous to even enumerate here. Nonetheless, having no job, an underpaid job, a depressing job, a stressful under-employing job, or no after-work privacy (in the form of one’s own apartment or home) has got to diminish—psychologically as well as logistically—one’s libido and chances.

(Anecdotal evidence: One Ph.D., one account executive, one former stock broker, one IT consultant and one semi-pro athlete and sales rep I know have had these circumstances in common: all are single and never married, have been forced to live at their parents’ home or room with others for a prolonged period at some point in the past few years, have had to scramble (including relocating) for jobs since the onset of the recession and have been denied the semblance of an intimate social life (a problem no doubt exacerbated by job-hunting and sub-job-taking malaise, as well as, ironically enough, having to move out of wherever they were, and start all over again as a complete and unconnected stranger in a new city, in order to follow a rare job lead.)

Bottom line: Lack of the “3C”s—cash, crib and car— because of joblessness or underemployment for all too many is likely to mean lack of the fourth: cuddles—to which you can add the fifth, if the cuddles would have led to conception, viz., children.

  • Having children: Conceiving and raising children is perhaps the most dramatic rite of passage into adulthood for a woman who wants children, with marriage perhaps occupying the second spot, and jobs and degrees, on average, probably behind these. Here again, since the financial tsunami-cum-quagmire of the period since the 2008 recession, kids are in increasing numbers are having to wait longer to be born. Says the AP report:

“Younger women across all race and ethnic groups had fewer children compared with 2008. Births declined 6 percent among 20-34 year-olds over the two-year period even though the number of women in this group increased by more than 1 million, according to an analysis of census data by Kenneth Johnson, sociology professor and senior demographer at the University of New Hampshire. Never before has such a drop in births occurred when the population of young adults increased, in at least 15 years. ‘Are people just delaying births, or does this represent a real loss of babies that won’t be replaced? During the Great Depression, there was a permanent loss of births—they were never made up,’ Johnson said.”

Of course, “correlation is not causation”, so there can be other factors in play here, which are driving the birthrate down; but, how many young women will think that becoming a mom in the middle of a deep recession and/or when she or her partner has no job or a “sub-job” (subpar or temporary substitute) will be keen to try to “stabilize” or fulfill their lives by adding a child to the script?

Compared with the young Masai bride shown above, her probably older, yet still young counterpart in the recession-ridden U.S. is much less likely than she to become a mom anytime soon after getting her own bridal coif (which will be another divergence from the Masai rites, illustrated and symbolized by the bride’s ritualistically tonsured-head ring in the photo).

Again, when you can’t offer young people jobs, their babies have to take a number and wait to be born, as their prospective parents wait for this, another of their own rites of passage.

  • Having a full-time job: Inasmuch as this is, as a lost rite of passage, the problem most familiar to recruiters, very little explanation is required. Suffice it to provide a picture of the degree to which it has become a problem: “Underemployment, in which Gallup combines part-time workers wanting full-time work with the U.S. unemployment rate, surged in mid-February [2011] to 19.6%—mostly as a result of the sharp increase in those working part time but wanting full-time work. Underemployment now stands at basically the same place as it did a year ago (19.8%).” (Gallup report)
  • Earning a disposable income that is at least comparable to one’s parents’ income: Making and getting by with less than one’s parents will, for some, perhaps many among the psychologically vulnerable, , scuttle any sense of or illusions about being a fully functioning adult—especially among the very many who have attained levels of formal education higher than their parents did, yet cannot earn what their breadwinner dad did, all by himself.

Without even going to the trouble of statistical comparisons, one need only open one’s eyes to the present and one’s ears to one’s parents to see how much tougher the American Dream has become to achieve, where it, if not the house, has not been altogether lost. “Household income” will provide a misleading comparison, since the higher numbers now reflect the choice, or more likely the necessity to have both spouses working to stay afloat.

This much is truly obvious, without even beginning to factor in the joblessness, underemployment and crushing student loans burdening younger job seekers. Rite of passage? Last rites for this one too, for all too many younger job hunters—save for those you can save and keep on the track to adulthood.

  • Being able to afford a lifestyle that children and teenagers with part-time jobs cannot:  It’s only another of my guesses, but is it not possible that part of the popularity of Facebook and texting among young adults as well as younger teens is attributable to the fact that they are essentially cost-free, zero-budget forms of socializing?

Perfect during a prolonged recession characterized by joblessness, minimum wages, reluctance to invite a date to McD’s for “dinner” or to your parent’s house—to which you’ve had to return to live, little free time for socializing (given the endless job search or the juggling of two or three part-time jobs to eke out a living).

Such is the panorama of not only despair and delay, but also of reversals and relinquishment of all of the key rites of passage that define becoming and remaining an adult. To this litany of consequences and feelings can be added these two: Your frustration in not being able to do as much about facilitating these rites of passage as you wish you could…

…and your satisfaction whenever you do.

Read more in Job Trends

Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).