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Confounded by Life After College, Today's Graduates May Be Too Young at Heart

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Like thousands of other students who graduate from liberal arts colleges each spring, “Jenny” arrived home with a bachelor of arts degree and not the slightest idea of what to do next. Her parents’ initial delight with her achievements slowly dissolved into anxiety as the summer slipped away and Jenny’s initiative seemed to slip with it. As Labor Day approached, Jenny’s father finally found her a position as a bank teller. “It was humiliating,” recalled Jenny, who quit a few weeks later and spent several years in search of the “right” job. “College hadn’t prepared me for a professional job or a crappy job.”

The problem, suggests author Susan Littwin, may not have been with the college. Jenny, she says, is typical of hundreds of young adults Littwin interviewed for her book The Postponed Generation (William Morrow, $16.95). Like the others, Jenny was bright, well-educated and hobbled by a dangerously unrealistic presumption—that she was entitled to an instantly fulfilling job without any drudgery along the way. “No one ever spelled it out for them,” says Littwin, “but they assumed they were on a track that led automatically to leadership and achievement.” When it turned out they weren’t, she adds, many of them didn’t know where to turn.

Herself the beneficiary of a liberal arts education at Barnard College in New York, Littwin, 47, taught for five years in New York public high schools. She lives now in Woodland Hills, Calif. with her husband, Larry, a political science professor at California State University at Northridge, and their two teenage sons. She discussed her findings with correspondent Suzanne Adelson.

When did you first notice that a large number of young people were failing to deal realistically with the responsibilities of adulthood?

I discovered it mostly from listening to my own friends. Many of them would confide that they had a 23-year-old child whom they were still supporting. There was a whole group of closet young adults that no one wanted to talk about—who were viewed as a private embarrassment. Many parents felt that their child was the only one who wasn’t out there becoming a doctor or starting his own software company. These parents had given their children everything, and the result seemed to be that the kids were undirected and downwardly mobile.

You mean there are a lot of aimless young adults out there who don’t fit the “yuppie” mold?

There is a myth that after the freedom of the ’60s, young people became very directed and materialistic. But that isn’t what happened. The recession of 1981 and 1982 hit a lot of these people especially hard. It was the first word many of them got that life after college might be tough. Graduates found themselves lowering their expectations and taking jobs they previously wouldn’t have considered. But some kids either wouldn’t or couldn’t adjust. They had high IQs but a low reality quotient.

What do you believe are the causes of this inability to cope with the real world?

There was a great deal of affluence in the early ’60s, and a lot of adults devoted themselves to being perfect parents. There just wasn’t enough they could do for their kids. At the same time, individualized instruction came into the schools. Each child could proceed at his own pace. He didn’t feel he had to keep up with the class. He was treated as special. Parents instilled in these children the same feeling—that things would always turn out for the best, that life would be strung with safety nets and that their fantasies would surely come true.

You say kids today are taking longer to complete college. Is that a sign of putting off adult responsibility?

At most urban universities, the average student takes five and a half years to get a diploma. The biggest reason is that these kids are less committed and less directed than their parents were. They drop out for a year. They work part-time and take a lighter course load. One registrar found he was harboring several hundred undergraduates who had enough credits to graduate but just wouldn’t do it. They didn’t want to take the plunge.

Can you describe one of the “typical” young adults you interviewed?

One particularly bright young woman had graduated from college after majoring in art history. She had what child psychiatrist Robert Coles has called a sense of “entitlement,” which is common among children of the very rich and which I found has begun to afflict many children of the middle class as well. These young people put great emphasis on self. They dislike being answerable to others, and they believe that things will somehow work out for the best. This girl didn’t know what she was going to do with her degree, but she felt that she wanted to “help people in some way.” I learned that she had had an internship with a congresswoman several years earlier and had “really loved it,” yet all the while that she was in that internship she never once took the time to find out how she should go about getting a job as a legislative aide. At the age of 23, she simply didn’t have the initiative.

Is laziness the problem, or do people like this just lack the know-how to pursue their objectives?

A lot of today’s kids don’t have a work ethic. Their parents worked hard at whatever jobs they could get. They were disciplined and they followed through. That’s something many of our kids have rejected. The expression I heard over and over again was “I could never work a 9-to-5 job.”

How long does this attitude last?

Lots of young adults seem to be shaping up by the time they’re 30. That birthday seems to scare them, and they start making commitments then.

How are parents responsible for fostering their children’s earlier attitude of avoidance?

The one thing the parents of these children didn’t give them was the knowledge that life could be tough and that they would need a certain amount of discipline. As a result, the kids grew up assuming they were going to live as well as their parents or better. At the same time, they resented their parents and rebelled against the very discipline that made their own adolescent life-styles possible.

Were you and your generation raised differently?

My generation was reared much more strictly. We grew up with the knowledge that we had to be useful. My senior year in college I was studying poetry and Latin. My father said to me, “What are you going to do when you graduate?” I had vague thoughts about all kinds of jobs. He said, “You get a teaching credential so you have something to fall back on. Do what you want, but get that first.” Parents today don’t want to raise their kids with the idea of a world in which you need something to fall back on. It seems too grim.

How would you handle it if one of your sons, after graduation, seemed to lack any sense of what he was going to do?

I would sit down with him and say, “Okay, what are your plans? We’d like to help you through this difficult period, but how long is it going to last, and what are you going to do to end it?” If I found myself supporting him, I would come up with a plan for a gradual withdrawal of support so he wouldn’t suddenly be cut off from financial help. I’d buy him health insurance, so I wouldn’t have to worry about that. Then I would try to cover my anxieties as best I could.

What if that didn’t work?

I believe that therapy can help. Many of the young people I talked to mentioned that it was a turning point in their lives. You might suggest that your child see a career adviser, but you can’t nag kids into adulthood. Don’t try to run their lives. It will only prolong their being children, and that’s what you want to end—that dependency.

What advice do you have for college kids who want to be productive and self-supporting when they graduate?

The first thing I would advise is to find out before graduation what life is going to be like afterward. It is possible to combine your intellectual development with something that will make you employable. Career counselors can put you in touch with alumni who work in fields you might be interested in. Take summer jobs, part-time jobs, anything that will give you a toehold in those fields. For those young adults who are a few years out of school and still foundering, the best advice I can give is, “Deep in your heart you know what you’re good at. Stop avoiding it. Go out and take a risk.”