Getting over the threshold
Stop treating twentysomethings like teenagers.
Headlines can always be made about the woes of 18- to 24-year-olds; and a recent article drawing on research about this apparently troubled age group claimed that ‘Young people are riddled with self-doubt, self-loathing and fears about the future’ (1). University dropout rates, young people’s suicide rates and general falling-apart rates are on the up.
Damn, I thought. Just when I’d finished being a teenager and had left all that angst and misery behind, a whole new abyss of disaster has opened before me.
Surely it is teenagers who are supposed to suffer from lack of self-esteem and have no idea about what they want to do with their lives; who have got drunk a few times too many and dropped out of education; or who suffer life-threatening shock because ‘they’re supposed to manage their own social lives, diets and sleep patterns’ when they leave home?
Except these aren’t teenagers we’re reading about: they’re young adults.
Apparently, 18- to 24-year-olds (known as ‘thresholders’, as they are on the brink of being grown up), are finding it increasingly difficult to navigate their way through their gap year and undergraduate years successfully. The progression from moody adolescent to responsible adult now involves more heartache than just letting your acne and body piercings heal over.
People always used to tell it the other way around. A-levels were the hardest exams you’d ever sit, and after that ‘nobody fails university – it’s the time of your life’. Now, apparently, sixth form is too easy and university is agonisingly hard.
I wouldn’t mind if the complaint was that degree courses are demanding – after all, people are paying good money for them. But no, it’s the emotional assault-course factor that, we are told, makes university so difficult to deal with.
Reality check: is going to university really being thrown into the deep end of the adult shark-pool? Most people I met at university had parents who helped contribute to their rent and were a phone call away were disaster to strike. At campus universities especially, undergraduates tend to move from the protected parental nest to the protected university microcosm.
They have student friends to live with, and a student union bar, entertainment and shop. They live in halls of residence or university-approved accommodation where help is at hand if their landlord tries to rip them off. They have personal tutors and campus doctors, dentists and counsellors nearby should anything go wrong. Not surprisingly, most people at my university managed to have a social life, do some study, get part-time or summer jobs, and generally get on with life in the way you would expect a person of that age to.
But now, apparently, we should stop thinking of the ‘thresholders’ who can’t handle finding where the supermarket shelves pot noodles as exceptions. Instead, we must realise that at 18 youths are often not mature enough to deal with their problems.
Talk about handing out permission to be crap. At 22 you don’t want to leave home, pay your own phone bill and do your own washing? Never mind – life’s very hard at that tender age anyway. Stay home and have mummy help you survive.
Being sympathetic to the few people with real difficulties is one thing. I’d agree that any 18- to 24-year-old who couldn’t manage to scrape together life’s necessities (an odd night out with their mates, beans on toast and a few hours sleep a night) would need serious help to grow up. Trying to keep the other 99 percent in nappies is something else.
I reckon it’s not the 18- to 24-year-olds we should be worrying about. Maybe it’s the mature, sensible adults believing that most twentysomethings need cotton-wool treatment who should be the real cause for concern.
(1) Please help me, I’m falling, Observer 26 August 2001
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