Failure to Launch or Launching Too Soon?

So what are your plans after graduation? As June approaches, this dreaded question not only weighs on the minds of the nation's college grads, but in the age of Failure to Launch, it likely keeps more than a few parents awake at night.

Magazines and newspapers are full of stories about twenty-somethings who can't seem to fly the coop. Self-help books with titles such as The Quarter-Life Crisis promise guidance to young people overwhelmed at the thought of entering the real world.

Yet all the hand-wringing misses a crucial point. The self-focus, exploration, and perceived possibility of this time of life is a luxury reserved for only the most privileged elite for only about one in four 25-year-olds, or just about 27 percent of this age group, earn that all-important college credential which makes the roaring twenty-something years possible.

In contrast to the media portrayals and conventional wisdom which suggest that today's iPod generation can't leave the leave the nest, consider the findings of Penn State researcher Wayne Osgood and his colleagues. They show that many young people continue to follow the traditional route to adulthood that defined the marriage rush and baby boom decade of the 1950s.

"Fast-starters," as Osgood calls them, are the young people with modest educations and modest resources who move into full-time jobs, marriage, and their own place far sooner than their upper-class peers.

However, they do so at a price. Young people progressing at lightning speed into adulthood accomplish this by neglecting schooling. This means fast-starters acquire the markers of adulthood on the fast track, but that they risk getting get trapped between the rock and a hard place of a blue- and pink-collar labor sector where down-sizing, stagnating wages, shrinking worker's benefits, and nonexistent job mobility eat away at their chances of getting ahead. Even marriage is not as stable for this group. Fast-starters might walk down the aisle earlier in life, but their unions are more likely to end in divorce than their college educated peers.

As uncertain as things might be for the fast starters, another group faces an even more questionable future. These disconnected young adults - some estimates put this population at 14 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds - are often neither working, nor going to school, nor active in the military. Many have aged out of foster care, bounced around in homeless shelters and spent time in juvenile detention facilities. They constitute our most vulnerable youth, and without support and intervention, the only road they'll take is probably the one leading to jail, or worse.

In The Culture of Fear, sociologist Barry Glassner wryly observes that Americans are afraid of the wrong things. And so it seems, this might be the case with the latest take on "the problem with young people today." At first glance, the highly educated, so-called millennials might seem slow to get started, but rest assured, this select minority is on target to do almost everything their parents hope and expect for them.

The true "lost generation" is the factory worker who regrets not learning more about computers, the waitress and single mom who even with a full-time job earns too little to permanently leave public assistance, or the married 23-year-old mother working the night-shift at a convenience store, too exhausted to keep up with course work for her teaching degree.

And finally, most distressingly of all, are the steadily swelling ranks of the largely male drop-outs - from high schools, community, and four-year colleges - who lack the capital (human, social, cultural and economic) to lead productive lives.

Perhaps the most important lesson for this commencement season is that we are living in an America that is profoundly unequal, and that the simultaneously harsh and mundane realities of the twenty-first century's global economy mean that a college degree determine who will become a have or have-not. Community colleges show promise as an alternative for young people not destined for a university campus, but they remain an under-used resource in creating trained workers.

We must do far more to reach out to the large numbers of youth trying to navigate this new terrain of early adulthood without the scaffolding affluent families can provide. At the end of the day, the legions of college grads moving back home while they figure out what to do after college is not something to lose sleep over. The growing numbers of young people embarking on adulthood without the education and skills they need to lead engaged and purposeful lives: that should be keeping somebody up at night.