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The commitment-phobe generation

By Laura Sessions Stepp, Special to CNN
  • Laura Sessions Stepp says 20-somethings seem to be adrift, uncommited to jobs or marriage
  • Episodic education, temp jobs, living at home and then away typify their lives, she says
  • But it's hard to commit when life opportunities are shrinking or unreliable, she writes
  • Stepp: No wonder Facebook is popular; it's perfect medium for commitment-averse

Editor's note: Laura Sessions Stepp is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, formerly with The Washington Post, who specializes in the coverage of young people. She has written two books: "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both," and "Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children Through Early Adolescence."

(CNN) -- The duties of England's newest royal couple, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, have commenced. Their first obligation was welcoming President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle to Buckingham Palace. Coming up is a 10-day tour of Canada that will include a favorite royal stop, Prince Edward Island.

An official visit to the United States follows, and we can be sure the royal court's agenda-setters are busy filling in the details for that trip with the same precision and attention to tradition they applied to the royal wedding in the 700-year-old Westminster Abbey.

So much about the lives of William and Kate from now on is already determined. They know where their money is coming from, where they will live and who their friends will be.

Committing to a particular path in life comes more easily when you know what you're committing to and who or what will support you along the way. Many young people these days do not have those assurances, and are putting off making the commitment the royal couple made.

It's hard to commit to anything or anyone when life opportunities appear to be shrinking.
--Laura Sessions Stepp

In 1970, 21 percent of Americans had reached the age of 25 without getting married, according to William Galston, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. By 2005, that figure was 60 percent, and it is undoubtedly higher today.

The delay, says Richard Settersten, professor of human development at Oregon State University, is caused "both by the daunting reputation of marriage and because young adults are not ready to get married until they get all their ducks in a row."

Settersten contributes to something called the Network on Transitions to Adulthood, a group of researchers who study 18- to 34-year-olds. According to the group, the number of adults in that population living at home has increased by 50 percent since the 1970s. Its data also show that many of those young people do not have a job or a four-year college degree. More than half don't have even an associate's degree.

These young people can't help but wonder how they will be able to secure a good-paying job in today's bleak economy. Will it be something they'll enjoy? Will they ever be able to support a family? The previous few generations have asked similar questions, but I doubt they witnessed so much economic change.

As Brookings' scholar Galston has noted, being 15 or 35 is still much like being 15 or 35 a generation ago. But being 25 is altogether quite different. Galston says today's young adults "are much less likely to have committed themselves to a mate or to a career ... and many go back and forth between episodic education and temporary jobs and between independent living and their parents' homes."

Life wasn't supposed to work this way.

When they were younger, many of these same 20-somethings were presented with an all-you-can-eat buffet of everything from organic baby food to unusual high school electives to smartphones and iPods.

Then the recession hit and the buffet shrunk to a one-page menu. Costs of higher education rose dramatically. Companies downsized or went out of business, reducing employment opportunities, especially for entry-level jobs. Moms and/or dads lost their jobs, curtailing their ability to support their grown children.

It's hard to commit to anything or anyone when life opportunities appear to be shrinking. And so, many young people don't, even in the small decisions they make on, of all places, that great social connector Facebook.

On Facebook, they can have hundreds of "friends" without committing to actually being a friend -- as in consoling someone on the phone at 2 a.m. They can "like" someone's post without saying what they like about it, or "accept" a request to be a friend to someone they've never met.

A man in his mid-20s brought this to my attention. He suggested that people might be more inclined to converse on Facebook if they had an option to "dislike" something or "deny" someone's friend request. But that will probably never happen, he said, because 20-somethings avoid what they consider "negative interactions with people."

"If a girl/guy doesn't like someone else, often they just ignore their phone calls/e-mails," he continued. "RSVPs are 'maybes.' That way we can get out of an event without looking like a jerk. The problem with this sort of nondecision is that it short-circuits the decision-making parts of our brains, so ultimately we can't commit to anything. If you can't say no to something, what does yes even mean?"

Well, of course, it doesn't mean anything -- which may be the point. Couples who grew up in farming communities, small towns and later on, the suburbs, knew pretty much from the time they were adolescents what their prospects were. Kate and William know what to expect. But young people who do a significant part of their growing up in an ersatz world described by the Internet may have trouble committing online, as in other parts of their lives, because it's harder for them to know what they're committing to -- or who, in crunch time, they can really count on.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Laura Sessions Stepp.