Colleges have to do much more to help students grapple with the coming decade of uncertainty. Before, there were social structures that could guide young adults as they gradually figured out the big questions of life. Now, those structures are gone.
A few months ago, I had lunch with a former student named Lucy Fleming, one of the best writers I’ve taught. I asked her what she had learned in her first year out of college. She said she had been forced to think differently.
While in school, her thinking was station to station: take that test, apply to that college, aim for a degree. But in young adulthood, there are no more stations. Everything is open seas. Your main problems are not about the assignment right in front of you; they are about the horizon far away. What should you be steering toward? It requires an entirely different set of navigational skills.
This gets at one of the oddest phenomena of modern life. Childhood is more structured than it has ever been. But then the great engine of the meritocracy spits people out into a young adulthood that is less structured than it has ever been.
There used to be certain milestones that young adults were directed toward by age 27: leaving home, becoming financially independent, getting married, buying a house, having a child. But the information economy has scrambled those timetables. Current 20-somethings are much less likely to do any of those things by 30. They are less likely to be anchored in a political party, church or some other creedal community.
When I graduated from college, there was a finite number of career ladders in front of me: teacher, lawyer, doctor, business. Now college graduates enter a world with 4 million footstools. There are many more places to perch (a startup, an NGO, a coffee shop, a consultancy) but few of the footstools pay a sustaining wage, seem connected with the others or lead to a clear ladder of rungs to climb upward.
People in their…