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Forever Young

Nothing escapes the attention of those eagle-eyed observers at the venerable Atlantic Monthly’s website, and they have lately noticed that young people are delaying adulthood.

Senior editor Derek Thompson discovered this phenomenon by examining data that show the “millennial generation” is staying in school longer, living at parents’ homes more often, marrying later, and putting off having children. He might have saved himself some rather dull research by simply looking around at all the fully grown people wearing backwards ball caps, oversized t-shirts, and baggy shorts as they ride their scooters to another marathon session of video game playing, or just eavesdropped on the inarticulate jabber that passes for youthful conversation, but a high-brow publication such as The Atlantic probably demands some data to go along with its observations.

Thompson attributes this extended adolescence to the recession, which has inflicted a 16 percent unemployment rate on 16- to 24-year-olds and cut their median earnings than more than any other age cohort, but we suspect it has more to do with the culture than the economy. America’s aversion to adulthood predates the economic downturn by many years, going back at least as far as the ‘60s era of “don’t trust anyone over 30,” and is common among all of the baby-boom-and-under generations. The average video game player is 37, people are dressing like 13-year-olds into their 40s, and we notice a good many gray pony-tails poking out of those backwards ball caps.

Popular music once celebrated the domesticated lifestyle with songs such as “Nice Work if You Can Get It” and “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” but that has long since been supplanted by a rock ‘n’ roll sensibility that rebels against such mundane satisfactions. Bob Dylan warbled an admonition to his fellow baby-boomers to remain “Forever Young,” John Cougar Mellencamp urged a later generation to “hold on to 16 as long as you can,” the current batch of rockers seem to be ironically following their elders’ advice, and hip-hop seems to argue for parenthood without adulthood.

When the movies aren’t based on comic books, that staple of juvenile literature, they’re often comedies about handsome men refusing to grow up. Actors such as Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black seem to have made careers out of the role. Television is similarly full of Peter Pan characters, such as the aging hipster woman on that crime show and the t-shirted twenty-somethings on that sit-com about the young folks who hang out together, and the advertisements are largely populated by youthfully disheveled slackers. The popular novels, we’re told, are mostly about vampires.

The political class has long accommodated this trend. The Obamacare bill’s purportedly popular provision extending parents’ health insurance to 26-year-old children is one notable example, but there are also the government incentives to endlessly extend education through easily obtained student loans, subsidies for illegitimacy, and a host of other policies. All of modern liberalism indulges the youthful notions of entitlement, no responsibility, hostility to traditional institutions, and putting it all on the credit card, which is probably why it can always count on the youth vote even when the young unemployment rate is 16 percent.

Perhaps the recession has exacerbated this longtime trend, but we can’t help thinking back to the old-timers who once lamented that the Great Depression had forced them to grow up young, and we can’t help recalling that they did. A prolonged adolescence was formerly something that young people felt they could afford during the long and presumably eternal economic boom, and now they find that adulthood is something they can’t afford during the hard times. Either way, it seems they’ll stay forever young, like it or not.

— Bud Norman

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