Coming of Age Young and Isolated


Healthy democracies depend on strong citizens to maintain, re-structure and build social institutions. Strong citizenry requires a capacity to think creatively, to operate with good character and to become fluent with diversity.  A strongly bi-furcated class structure threatens our young adults coming of age precisely on those very dimensions. While economists and politicians work on the economy, psychology needs to get out into the field with young adults. Help working class kids overcome the psychological barriers to upward mobility.  Challenge those who are affluent to develop internal life skills outside the safety net of their entitlements.

Jennifer Silva‘s recent NY Times editorial examines the experience of becoming an adult on the part of young working class Americans who face a world of disappearing jobs, soaring education costs and shrinking social support networks.  They face the “difficult-to-measure social costs borne by working class youths as they struggle to forge stable and meaningful adult lives.”  I have noted previously that white working class america has not always found the path to success.  The social costs alluded to by Silva leave scars.  Without a strong support system, these young people get stuck – “cutting ties, turning inward and numbing themselves emotionally.”

In my practice, I have noted that many wealthy young adults have their own scars. They face their own obstacles to coming of age in a meaningful manner.  They may have the resources to cover up their alienation and a capacity for narcissistic indulgence that obscures unhappiness.  Yet these young people often forge ahead in the narrow stricture of entitlement. They often remain uncomfortable with difference and frightened of the ordinary challenges that rely on internal grit rather than acquired accomplishments.

A strong society thrives best when all of its young adults come of age with self reliance, opportunity for skill and talent development, and support from a mentoring generation.

Instead, many of the working class and affluent young adults from all backgrounds with whom I work share a kind of developmental confusion. Unable to sort out what it actually means to become an adult in today’s world, they flounder. Working class twenty-somethings retreat back in to a familiar world that they feel they can afford and where they feel less shamed by economic vulnerability. Well-to-do twenty somethings, propped up their whole lives with enhancements like  private coaches, tutors, and exotic  – not to mention expensive – summer programs to buttress their resumes, often close off contact with aspects of life that might require actual self-confidence.  Too much pampering takes away from developing the psychological skills necessary to respond to a changing and volatile new world.

If working class young adults come of age overwhelmed by financial obligations and poor job prospects and well-resourced kids come of age defensively retreating behind the familiar paths their parents created for them our society loses.  At a time when our global world faces the challenges of economic stagnation, climate change, and terrorist threats, our solutions lie with innovation, creativity and strong value systems.  Democratic societies depend upon good citizens flexibly applying the principles of independence and liberty to the ever changing landscape of the world.

Our young adults deserve to come of age as a generation, not as splintered and class stratified fragments.  Working class kids need to be supported into our most important social institutions of academia, business, technology and the arts. Affluent kids need to be supported into getting outside the lens of entitlement and becoming firmly ensconced in achievements of their own heart.

Psychotherapy can be an incredibly useful support system – providing mentoring, coaching and connection.  Yet many of those who need it most can’t afford it and don’t yet have insurance (hopefully that will change). Then, insurance companies continually make being paid for services a Herculian effort and routinely limit the number of professional they will accept on their panels. Those who can afford it often yawn at the antiquated message of an exclusive focus on family dynamics.  Here I speak directly to my profession. There is a tendency not to tune our therapeutic training to the actual concerns of young people coming of age.  We need to bring the real world into the work of therapy, and the work of therapy into the real world.  In this way we create a psychology of support that any young adult can access as they attempt to transcend the anxiety and turmoil of a working class background or the shackles and insecurity of an entitled one.

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