Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Why Is 25 the New 15?

When it comes to age, it seems that subtract by ten is the new rule of thumb. Everyone is living longer, and at all stages in life, people seem to be ten years younger than their actual age. Our current crop of baby boomers, healthier and more youthful than previous generations, has sworn never to grow old. Indeed, fifty is the new forty.

Subtracting by ten works well with older ages; but what about our twenty-somethings? It seems that younger people are maturing at a slower pace as well. As David Brooks noted in the New York Times: “People….. tend to define adulthood by certain accomplishments — moving away from home, becoming financially independent, getting married and starting a family. In 1960, roughly 70 percent of 30-year-olds had achieved these things. By 2000, fewer than 40 percent of 30-year-olds had done the same.”

Twentysomethings are maturing far slower than their parents. People in their middle twenties now seem to be experiencing a second adolescence. Why is 25 the new 15?

The relative immaturity of our contemporary twentysomethings is rooted in the positive phenomena of peace and prosperity. Young people in North America need not serve in the military, and most don’t. Middle class twentysomethings can expect to have their parents provide them with cars, clothing, and cellphones. This dependence on one’s parents continues well after high school. Children who are taking entry level jobs are unwilling to live entry level lifestyles, and their parents are willing to indulge them by paying the rent and covering their credit cards. As one twentysomething observer noted:

The fact is, my peers who flood out of designer stores, arms adorned with shopping bags, wouldn't be able to afford their purchases without ringing up a massive credit-card debt. By continuing to provide for their twentysomething kids, parents hinder their children's ability to be financially responsible.

Or, to put it in simple English: we’re spoiling our kids. That’s why 25 is the new 15.

The problem of spoiling children is an old one. Jacob who works hard all his life to achieve success, spoils his beloved son Joseph, giving him fancy clothes and special treatment. It’s no wonder that the Midrash says that that Joseph was immature! The problem of spoiled children is an old phenomenon; we are simply lucky enough today to have the resources to spoil our children.

Unfortunately, handing our children the good life on a silver platter can do more harm than good. A powerful Kabbalistic idea popularized by the Ramchal is “the bread of shame”. If someone is handed a loaf of bread without earning it, they lose their dignity; and even if the recipient may be happy to live life on easy street, the fact that his achievements are unearned is an embarrassment to a man created in the image of God. To truly be a “man”, one must be dignified and independent, someone who is able to earn his own way. Trust funds may pay your credit card bills, but they can also destroy your character.

This issue is of great importance to the Jewish community. In one generation, the much of the Jewish world has gone from deprivation and suffering to breathtaking wealth. It is normal for a community of immigrants and survivors to want to hand everything to the next generation on a silver platter. And so we give too much to our kids. Hard work becomes unimportant when we hand undeserving young men the keys to successful businesses. Spiritual values get lost when materialism becomes the operating principle. And so we make Bar and Bat Mitzvahs that are so over the top they lend themselves to parody, and are sometimes so garish (and expensive) they end up on the gossip pages of tabloids. Our community has survived, and even thrived in the most difficult of times due to faith, community and character. Ironically, our community’s material success threatens to destroy the very values it was built on.

Adolescent 25 year olds are not an automatic outcome of success; it happens when we forget transmit our values to the next generation. If our priority is to provide our children with values, not valuables, we will have children to be proud of.

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