Lena Dunham's Girls: The Raw Truth About Twentysomethings

The trials and tribulations of being twentysomething.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 13: (L-R) Zosia Mamet, Lena Dunham and Allison Williams, from the cast of 'Girls,' attend HBO's Post 2013 Golden Globe Awards Party held at Circa 55 Restaurant at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 13, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California.

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."