Lost Rites of Passage for the Lost Generation

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THE GROUNDED MASAI/Photo: Michael Moffa

Part I: “Grounded”, in the Worst Sense

“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”

Every recruiter knows that having to deny an applicant a job exacts a toll in terms of that job-seeker’s lost income and often in the form of intangibles, like lost confidence and self-respect. But who among you has considered the cost in terms of lost “rights of passage” into adulthood?

Job growth is not the only kind of growth seriously stunted by a stagnant economy. There’s a second kind of stunting caused by joblessness and “sub-jobs”  (substandard jobs that are substitutes for the jobs one is really qualified for) that has perhaps even more serious consequences for a nation’s young people than slowed, or worse, reversed and undone job growth.

That second kind of retardation and regression is stunting of personal growth—growth defined and measured around the world in terms of “rites of passage” into adulthood—especially, but not only, for young men, men of what is being called the “lost generation”. Moreover, it is a stunting among the young that directly correlates with the lack of a good or any job and the relentlessly dismal job figures for them, recently reported in a September 22, 2011 Associated Press article, “Census: Recession takes big toll on young adults”, as 55.3 percent among young adults 16-29, compared with 67.3 percent in 2000—cited as the lowest since the end of World War II.

The Passage of the Masai Warrior

Traditionally, a Kenyan Masai boy became a tribesman when he killed a lion—manhood grounded in tradition and courage (as well as in completion of nine other formal rites of passage, including “Eunoto”—warrior-shaving ceremony, “Enkipaata”—adolescent pre-circumcision, and “Enkiama”—marriage).

The lion hunt, now in groups rather than solo, because of declining lion populations, is dramatic and conclusive: Lion killed, boy becomes a man by “making a killing”, more literally than any Wall Street intern would ever contemplate. But even when rites of passage are not as white-knuckle as a man-to-man eater, toe-to-paw, life-or-death confrontation, the consequences in our culture of failing to pass on into adulthood can be as psychologically devastating as losing to the lion is physically traumatic.

The Passage of the Job Warrior

What are the current rites of passage and the attendant rights and obligations thereof in our modern Western cultures and economies?  The list of rites that follows comprises very familiar steps, including your hiring a young man or woman for a job. What is less familiar, in the historical sense, is the social phenomenon of a delay or reversal of every one of them, in the current instance because of continuing economic gloom:

  • Establishing an independent household
  • Not living at home while in post-secondary school
  • Marrying or living common-law
  • Having Sex
  • Having children
  • Having a full-time job
  • Earning an income that is at least comparable to one’s parents’ income
  • Being able to afford a lifestyle that children and teenagers with part-time jobs cannot

“Grounded”, in the Worst Possible Sense

One of the purposes of any rite of passage is to give a young person a sense of being grounded—either in the sense of being rooted in his or her cultural or tribal traditions, like the Masai youth, which (s)he will carry on in adult ways, or grounded in the sense of having a well-grounded sense of self as a base from which to further change oneself, if not those traditions or the world. Unfortunately, a recession that won’t recede is leaving untold numbers of young people feeling “grounded” in the worst possible sense—forced to stay at home well into what should be their adult years, by economic, even if not by parental, decree.

Here are the two ways of living away from home that are under economic siege as rites of passage:

  • Establishing an independent household: Some have defined being an “adult” as paying one’s own rent, i.e., maintaining an independent household, with all the rights and obligations pertaining thereto as constituting the essence of becoming and remaining an adult.  That makes sense, since having one’s own household paid for by oneself utterly eliminates the inhibiting and often retarding effects of the “Leave It to Beaver” parental “live under my roof, live under my rules” code of domestic conduct. Unfortunately, this rite of passage is not just being delayed; it’s also being undone and reversed.

That’s because one of the first consequences of losing a job or not getting one after graduation is predicted by the psycho-economic “law of regression”: battered by the grim realities of the daunting job market, the psychologically and financially crushed son or daughter is forced, and not merely drawn, back home. The precise form of the psychological principle is this: “In the face of frustration, regress to a previous level of comfortable adjustment”—going home as comforting thumb-sucking, like the classic starry-eyed wannabe teen-starlet who flees Hollywood for home after hope and cash have run out, the latter illustrating the more transparent, correlative economic principle of regression: “Run out of money? Run home.”

The data for what I call such “homing clay-pigeons”—shot out of the job-market sky, falling onto their own front porches—are bleak. The AP story reported this: “Opting to stay put, roughly 5.9 million Americans 25-34 last year lived with their parents, an increase of 25 percent from before the recession. Driven by a record 1 in 5 young men who doubled up in households, men are now nearly twice as likely as women to live with their parents.” Breaking these statistics down by race and ethnicity, the AP report stated that “31 percent of young black men lived in their parents’ homes, compared with 21 percent of young Latino men and 15 percent of young white men.” (No figures cited for women.)

Even more dramatic is one 2010 poll result: according to a survey conducted by consulting firm   Twentysomething Inc., some 85% of new post-secondary graduates planned to move back in with their parents. If this is compared with a reported National Retail Federation October 2008 survey figure for the percentage of college students living at home at that time—54% (up from 49% in 2007), getting a college or university degree increases, rather than decreases the odds of not only keeping your old posters up on your old childhood wall, but also of having to stare at them while you worry about getting a job or coping with the one(s) you’ve got.

In addition to exacting a predictable, although unquantifiable toll on young job-seekers, this homing clay-pigeon phenomenon may be fraught with implications for employers and recruiters. For example, the longer an adult child remains home, perhaps the likelier these two outcomes: Either the stay-at-home child comfortably and protractedly identifies with the prevailing parental values (like “Wally” and “the Beav”) or resists them (like South Park’s sociopathic kid-as-id “Eric Cartman”), thereby either amplifying a tendency towards conformity, compliance and complaisance or ratchets up any personal tendency toward conflict, rebellion and misfit behavior. These are predilections that are unlikely to be compartmentalized and kept separate from work. (Note: like many of my speculations, this one too is armchair.)

In this connection,  I have often wondered whether or not that extra year at home when Ontario had a grade 13 as a preliminary to university had this kind of an effect on what would otherwise have been college-bound teens independently exploring and shaping their formative and seething adolescence.

  • Not living at home while in post-secondary school or training programs: Although strictly speaking not an imminently employment-related rite of passage, being a pre-employment circumstance, living away from home during the college and university years is a rite of passage for most who manage to do so, even if the financial umbilical tying them to their parents is not as completely severed as it is with establishing a 100% independent household. Call it a “quasi-rite of passage”.

Although my personal evidence is anecdotal, it is noteworthy that when I asked a close friend of mine, a 1980s Brown University graduate, how many of his school chums went home to live with their parents after graduation, he said, “none”. Ditto for me—in both respects. Similarly, it can be argued that past (and present) generations of boys felt they became men as much from being bivouacked in tents far from their parental nests as from being subjected to the rigors of on-the-job boot-camp military training.

However, here again the AP article and other sources offer more comprehensive and formal data to interpret: “Among adults 18-34, the share of long-distance moves across state lines fell last year to roughly 3.2 million people, or 4.4 percent, the lowest level since World War II. For college graduates, who historically are more likely to relocate out of state, long-distance moves dipped to 2.4 percent.”

The National Retail Federation stay-at-home college student rate of 54% clearly implies that more than half of all college and university students are not experiencing living away from home as one of their few available rites of passage into adulthood.  (However, a 2009 USNews report gives a much lower figure, 21%, as the percentage of graduating seniors who plan to live at home while attending college—which may reflect a gap between optimistic, wishful-thinking high school senior expectations and eventual recession-induced harsher, more limited outcomes.)

While the AP data do not distinguish falling migration-rates among younger “adults” after completing post-secondary education from the rates for those just starting it, nor distinguish college graduates who did not move from the state in which their college/university was situated from those who did not move from their home state, they do suggest a trend toward staying put—i.e., less life-expanding, personal-growth-enhancing sought-for mobility, traditionally the hallmark of adventurous, independent adults and lifestyles.

These trends toward being “home-bound” (in both senses, viz., “headed for” and “stuck at”) among job-hunting young graduates and post-secondary students soon to become job-hunters compromise just two of the six rites of passage identified above as currently being blocked, delayed or reversed. Yet, they may be enough to do substantial damage to the normal processes of becoming and feeling like an adult, including feeling confident enough to cope with the recession-fueled ego and economic survival issues that apparently are not going to disappear anytime soon.

Manifestly, having to live with one’s parents is going to affect not only a young person’s self-perception and social/professional opportunities, but also perceptions of and approaches to jobs—if jobs can be found at all, e.g., possible distorted polarization of attitudes into eager-to-please obsequiousness or visible resentment. On the other hand, human resilience being what it demonstrably is, getting a job from you, in and of itself may, for many, constitute a sufficient rite of passage into adulthood, for now.

Nonetheless, when combined with the frustrations of job hunting and other impeded rites of passage,  denial of the transition to occupancy of a fully-independent adult home may be more than enough to make the home-bound and homing clay-pigeons feel not only grounded in the worst sense, but also ground up, instead of grown up.

(Next: Part II—how the tight job market and lack of the “3Cs”—cash, crib and car—is endangering the other rites of passage)

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).