Lena Dunham's Girls: The Raw Truth About Twentysomethings

Rachel Pomerance

If you haven't yet caught HBO's cult-hit Girls, here's what you're missing: a dramedy about twentysomethings struggling to find their way in New York and, more generally, the messiness of growing up. The subtext: At twentysomething, they're still wrestling with the wrenching trials of that transition.

Well, duh! Anyone who is or has ever been in their 20s knows this. Leaving the proverbial nest naturally, and literally, inspires drama. (Anyone see Avenue Q? The Broadway coming-of-age story featured a song entitled "What Do you Do with a B.A. in English?") So it's perhaps unsurprising that Lena Dunham, the show's writer, producer, director, and star, sets up the series by ripping away her character's financial lifeline from the Bank of Mom and Dad.

It's this last bit that has rattled some viewers--the extent to which these characters are bankrolled by their parents, or expect to be, and the alleged attitude of entitlement associated with the current crop of twentysomethings.

But that picture may not be quite right.

"Thriving, struggling, and hopeful" is more like it, according to Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a Clark University psychology professor, who puts these descriptors on the front page of his newly-released poll of "emerging adults," a national survey of more than 1,000 18- to 29-year-olds on subjects ranging from work and love to adulthood. Arnett actually coined the phrase "emerging adulthood" and co-founded the Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood to name what he calls this "new life stage," characterized in large part by seeking one's identity and purpose.

"The task of the period is to become yourself"--to "know who you are and to take responsibility for being who you are," says Jennifer Tanner, a developmental psychologist and visiting assistant research professor at Rutgers University's Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging.

Today, the increasing time devoted to that task has resulted in a social phenomenon known as a "prolonged adolescence."

"That's why they call the show Girls," says John Sharp, a psychiatrist with practices in Boston and Los Angeles and author of The Emotional Calendar: Understanding Seasonal Influences and Milestones to Become Happier, More Fulfilled, and in Control of Your Life. The phenomenon, he explains, is decades in the making.

In her 1996 book, New Passages, published 20 years after the blockbuster original, Gail Sheehy re-mapped the human life cycle. "People today are leaving childhood sooner, but they are taking longer to grow up and much longer to grow old. That shifts all the stages of adulthood ahead--by up to 10 years." Sheehy wrote. "True adulthood doesn't begin until 30," she stated, calling the run-up decade the "tryout twenties."

That lengthened gap between physical and emotional adulthood stems from major socio-economic shifts, Arnett says. He notes, for example, delayed marriage and parenthood, more education beyond college, and new sexual mores, unhinging sex from marriage ever since the arrival of the birth control pill. "The old markers of adulthood don't really apply anymore," Arnett says, explaining that today self-sufficiency has supplanted those benchmarks formerly occupied by getting married or finishing one's schooling. In recent years, self-sufficiency has been harder to come by as twentysomethings compete in an already squeezed job market. Still, according to Arnett's research, almost 70 percent of his subjects said they get little to no financial help from their parents or only on occasion.

[See Teaching Your Kids About Sex: Do's and Don'ts.]

He also found the group highly optimistic, with nearly 90 percent confident they will ultimately achieve their life's desires, and more than 80 percent finding their lives fun, exciting, full of change, and satisfying, even as 72 percent call this time of their lives stressful. More time to experiment may lead to better choices, Arnett says, but "with a less-structured transition to adulthood, more people flounder and sort of get lost."

Among his young clients, Sharp has found many confused and stressed by the multitude of choices. "Whatever you pick, you're picking to the exclusion of everything else," he says. Conversely, as Tanner says, "to get that something, you had to give up the dream that you could be anything."

[See 8 Ways to Become an Optimist.]

Girls is fantasy, not a documentary, Tanner notes, and for many it represents an ideal indulgence in self-discovery that's not available to everyone. The volatility it represents, however, is very much endemic to the age.

"Emerging adults really have the most intense emotional range," Tanner says. "They feel higher highs and they feel lower lows." But that discomfort is part of the process, she explains--"destabilizing you so that you really are pushed to figure these things out." And clearly, navigating relationships is central to the age as well as the show. "None of these people know who they are so the relationships are really about: 'You don't see me.' 'No, you don't see me. You don't know who I am. No, you don't know who I am,'" Tanner says. "You gotta figure out who you are if you want to figure out who you should be with."

There's no real way around learning about life the hard way. But there are some things twentysomethings can do to ease the angst.

"Sitting around in your living room in your underwear all the time isn't the right thing to do," Sharp says. "I've seen that there's a lot of hangover from the college routine or lack of routine," and people struggle to create healthy adult lives, replete with exercise and nutritious foods. It "doesn't have to be an elaborate plan, but just getting a good start" can launch one in a better direction, as opposed to "fighting off the snooze alarm all morning long."

[See How and Why to Become a Morning Person.]

Take control of your life with regular schedules and networking, Sharp says. Talk to others who can inspire your growth. In particular, look for someone you can relate to, but who "has their shit more together than you," he says. Someone whose success seems unattainable won't motivate you, and "if they're too much in the same boat as you, it's not going to change your circumstances." Additionally, consider ways to improve yourself by honing skills and interests.

When it comes to love, don't give up, Sharp says. If you're trying really hard to make something work, move on. In every age, people will always seek a mate, so even amid today's complexities, the key thing to remember is this: "You're still looking for something really special." To that point, Tanner says that this "elongated transition to adulthood" carries certain risks for women, for whom putting off pregnancy increases the risk of infertility and other reproductive complications.

Arnett, whose upcoming book is titled When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up?, also has advice for parents. "Be patient," he says. "They're not behind. It's just that the timetable is different, and you need to give them time to grow up on the new timetable, because almost everybody by age 30ish does make their choices and does enter adulthood."