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Stunted development, or a new stage in maturation?

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Last year the New York Times Magazine attempted to answer a question that has perplexed everyone from parents and professors to policy-makers -- and even the generation that's the focus of the puzzle.

"Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?"

The Times story quoted an American psychology professor named Jeffrey Jensen Arnett who believes what we're witnessing is a new category of development, not unlike what happened a century earlier when social and economic changes created what came to be known as adolescence.

Arnett has even given a name to this period of maturing that extends from 18 to the late 20s.

Emerging adulthood.

It's a stage he attributes in part to a requirement for more education in an era where even more schooling may not produce a job.

Others, particularly parents who are still feeding and housing these "emerging" adults in the less-and-less-comfortable cocoon of the home they've moved back into or never left, may see the problem in a less analytical or sympathetic way.

They see it as a failure to launch.

A failure to launch, that is, unless it's to some idealized locale like Australia. Which is where three local emerging adults of my acquaintance are now.

Kurt Carlson is 23, while Adam Paulhus and Dan Lamoureux are both 22. When I sat down with them early last month at Joey's Kenaston, they were just preparing to head Down Under.

Kurt and Dan tended bar at Joey's, and by the time we spoke over a notebook instead of a glass of wine, I had already figured out why they had decided on Australia based on how one of their co-workers at Joey's described her two-month experience a few years earlier.

"It's a party," 25-year-old Jenn McMurray said. "It's a big beach party."

But, beyond Australia, what I was really interested in was where Kurt, Adam and Dan were going in life.

I was in for some surprises.

Starting with why Kurt became the leader of the trip. He earned it by winning $2,000 in a Joey's employee-recruiting contest.

"It's called the Adventure of the Lifetime Contest," Kurt explained. "It's to travel wherever you want in the world. To live your dream."

But more surprising was where Kurt's need to travel came from.

His father died recently.

"It sounds cliché," Kurt said, "but I just go with the flow now. Because you never really know how long you've got to live. So that's why I decided to go on this trip."

There was more.

Listening to the three of them, I found a maturity that, on the surface at least, belies the emerging-adult tag. Something that made me wonder if it was a case of them not growing up, or, more accurately, not meeting our expectation of milestones like career, marriage and family.

In their cases, all had been to university and, unlike so many young people, all know where they want to go beyond the trip. Kurt is headed for medicine. Adam wants to be a firefighter. And Dan, having just graduated, is destined for the financial sector. If he can find a job.

Which is also Adam's problem. He applied to be a firefighter in Toronto.

"They were only hiring 50 people out of 2,000 applicants."

With no career started, and being unfettered by family commitments, Kurt didn't have to ask Adam and Dan if they were interested in joining him and another local pal, 21-year-old Travis Hallgrimson, on the beach this winter Down Under.

"I looked at the smile on Kurt's face," Adam recalled, "and I said, 'I need this.' I hope Toronto doesn't call back."

They didn't. So they all left on Jan. 11 -- Kurt and Adam without return tickets.

"If I could get a firefighter's job there, I'd stay," Adam said. "I'm not opposed to anything."

Dan, meanwhile, has plans to return after six months.

"I feel the pressure to start a career," he said.

What he doesn't feel the pressure to do is get married.

"The meaning isn't quite there anymore."

Not surprising for a generation scared if not scarred because of the divorce rate.

There was something else all three seem to share.

A sense of optimism.

Actually, that's one of the findings from Prof. Arnett's research on 20-somethings. That while they may be less certain about the future, they're overwhelmingly optimistic that life will be good.

Regrettably, I'm not as optimistic for them, but then I'm looking back and they're looking forward.

Finally, the Times also posed another question, more pointed than the first.

"Is emerging adulthood a rich and varied period for self-discovery, as Arnett says it is? Or is it just another term for self-indulgence?"

In his own way, something Adam Paulhus said about the trip to Australia answered that; both for himself, and perhaps his generation.

"We just want to live our lives before we have to live our lives."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 19, 2011 B1

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