There's a highly popular course at UC Berkeley this year, with more than 200 students applying for only 60 available slots. The course is part of Berkeley's student-taught curriculum, and it's in "Adulting." You know, things like paying your bills and cooking meals at home. 

The Adulting class is taught by two students, Jenny Zhou and Belle Lau, who themselves realized that they lacked some of the skills they needed to make it as grownups in the real world. They knew they didn't have all the answers but that they could use the class as an opportunity to learn more and share what they learned with other students. They say they're skipping stuff like auto maintenance and sewing, and working on more abstract concepts such as time management, fitness, nutrition, and handling relationships. 

News of the course and the many others like it has been met with predictable disdain for the young people who need lessons in what most of us think of as basic life skills. One letter writer to the LA Times put it this way: "These kids mean to say that they are capable of earning a degree from one of the world's foremost academic institutions, yet they cannot figure out by themselves how to read a cookbook, get to work on time or how not to outspend their income?"

An equal share of blame is aimed at their parents, who stand accused of coddling these kids to the point of helplessness. For example, my Inc.com colleague Amy Morin wrote, "We're raising a generation of emotional wimps who lack the ability to stand on their own two feet." 

Now, I don't usually disagree with Morin. She's a psychotherapist and knows much more about what makes people tick than I do. But I also believe that if you find yourself criticizing an entire generation, you should stop for a moment and consider that generations are made up of individuals. If all those individuals are doing the same wrong thing at the same time, it's likely there's some societal force pushing them in the wrong direction.

College is both more important and more unaffordable than ever.

Stop blaming either college students or their parents and consider the societal forces that got us here. Begin with the growing phenomenon of income inequality. Whatever they may feel about income inequality, most parents would prefer their children to be on the higher side, not the lower side, of the great income divide. And it turns out that a college degree is usually what determines which side of the line you'll end up on. "The post-Great Recession economy has divided the country along a fault line demarcated by college education," said a 2018 report on the subject. 

So parents are more eager than ever to see that their kids go to college, and the kids themselves, if they're smart, are equally motivated to get there. That's led to a fairly dramatic rise in applicants for higher education and, as always, when demand rises, prices go up. Admittedly, the out-of-control costs of a college education and the resulting $1.5 trillion in student debt has multiple causes beyond increased demand. But whatever the causes, the reality is that students face a much more competitive admissions process. This means that as graduating seniors, they need to present not only excellent grades but also solid athletics and/or meaningful extracurricular activities, and they probably ought to have an after-school job as well so they can start saving up for that sky-high tuition. 

Does that sound like a lot of pressure to you? It does to me, on both high school students and their parents. Those parents are often derided with the term "helicopter" but they know how important it is that their kids do everything right if they want a rosy, financially secure future. There's a lot less margin for error than there was when we older generations were in high school. Once they get to college, there's even more pressure on students. They likely have to get a job to defray the enormous cost of college, but they also know they should make sure to get fantastic grades and a great education so as to justify the huge expense and land a job that gives them some hope of paying it off. 

I'm watching these forces play out on the young people I know, and what I'm seeing is super-serious, very hard-working young adults who hurry from class to job to study to class again. They have little of anything that might look like unstructured free time, known to be highly important for mental and emotional development. And, no, they're not using what little free time they have to learn how to bake a cake or fix a dripping faucet. Some are also not finding the time to learn the tricky art of managing adult relationships. And so--yes--the smart ones know that they need help.

You may think Berkeley's Adulting class is an indication that young people are too lazy, or that their parents are too helpful. I see it as an intelligent and sane response to the dysfunctional educational system in which these college students find themselves. It's up to the rest of us, both young and old, to figure out how to change things. So that young people can have enough breathing room to figure out on their own what it takes to be a grownup and how to become one. So that they, with their tens of thousands in debt, can actually make it in the adult world.

Published on: Dec 15, 2019
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