David Brooks Tries to Find Good News in Youth Job Crisis but Thirty is Too Late

David Brooks shares some sobering news about college grads and then tries encourage readers that it is not so bad. The encouragement is not convincing.

I don’t often write positively about David Brooks because I think almost everything he ever says about foreign policy and national security are delusions that, when acted upon, increase chaos among the nations and leave the United States less secure. But this editorial in the New York Times was mostly good: “How Adulthood Happens.” The headline seems odd, at first, because his major point seems to be that adulthood is not happening.

As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa write in their book “Aspiring Adults Adrift,” the average student at a four-year college studies alone just over one hour per day. That is roughly half of how much students were compelled to study just a generation ago.

Meanwhile, colleges have become socially rich, stocked with student centers, student organizations, expensive gyms, concerts and activities. As Arum’s and Roksa’s research demonstrates, academic life is of secondary or tertiary importance to most students. Social life comes first. Students experience college as a place to meet other people and learn to build relationships.

When they leave campus, though, most of those social connections and structures are ripped away. Suddenly fresh alumni are cast out into a world almost without support organizations and compelled to hustle for themselves.

You won’t be shocked to read that, when this happens, these ex-college students don’t do that well. They aren’t prepared for the work they need to do to get started in life. While they maintain unrealistic optimism about their own lives working out eventually, they are disengaged and don’t want to become adults “too soon.” Many move in with their parents again. The number of graduates living at home has doubled since the 1960s.

David Brooks is giving us a moral and cultural analysis of what is happening, but I’ve been writing since at least 2013 about economic pressures that encourage this behavior. It isn’t just that graduates have a self-damaging attitude and a deficient knowledge base. The jobs simply aren’t there during this “recovery.” The confluence of a bad economy with bad attitudes is a recipe for a crisis.

This is where David Brooks gets overly optimistic. It seems that most of these graduates eventually come to some understanding of the real world and how they need to work in it. They usually reach this point about the time they turn thirty.

One thing we can tell young grads and their parents is that this is normal. This phase is a thing. It’s not a sentence to a life of video games, loneliness and hangovers. It’s a rite of passage that makes people strong.

Right. It makes people strong approximately eight years after they used to become strong!

Delaying household formation and career development to the age of thirty is going to have economic and demographic consequences that will not be enjoyable. I certainly agree that it is better to get serious at thirty than to do so later, but it is still going to be damaging to our standard of living.

Also, how do we know that, in a few years, graduates won’t get serious until they are thirty-five… or forty? For all we know what is happening in nations like Japan—where many adults seem to never grow up and lose interest in sex—is headed here.

Telling young grads that “this is normal,” is a bad idea.

Rather than taking comfort in a thirty year average time period for becoming a real adult, we need to figure out how to encourage young men and women to recognize their adulthood earlier. We also need to tear down the obstructions to a growing economy.