Thursday, April 25, 2013

Thirty Is the New Twenty: Why New Adult Is Making Inroads

While the term New Adult has been floating around for the last couple of years, it's only really gotten traction in the last couple of months. A few weeks ago, Publishers Marketplace added New Adult as a subcategory, and at around the same time, a so-called New Adult title, Jamie McGuire's WALKING DISASTER, hit the number-one spot on USA Today's best-selling books list.

Now, I can't say what New Adult actually is. Several people have tried, including a writer at Shelf Awareness and another at USA Today, but I don't think anybody really knows where the needle's going to settle. So far, it appears that most New Adult titles are knockoffs of E.L. James's FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, at least according to the deal listings on Publishers Marketplace. But I suspect that this will change, that the category will break out--and in a big way--because of one simple truth:

People aren't growing up as quickly as they used to.

My adulthood in brief: I got married at twenty, had a mortgage by twenty-two, and gave birth to my first child at twenty-three. Now at twenty-nine, I have three kids, am almost a third of the way through that thirty-year mortgage, and will probably be an empty-nester by the time I'm fifty. But what's become increasingly clear to me is that I'm an anomaly among my peers.

The twenties have morphed into a kind of extended adolescence, a time to figure out who you are and what you want without Mom or Dad or the vice principal looking over your shoulder. The legal barriers to self-discovery slide out of the way, and you can pretty much do and be and have it all (provided you can fit it in that two-hundred-dollar backpack you're planning to schlep across Europe or the Himalayas or wherever it is that people go to discover themselves nowadays). I'm not saying that's good or bad (though I do have an opinion on the topic); I'm simply saying that's how it is.

So it's no surprise that a similarly slanted cadre of books are finding a toehold in the marketplace. Twenty-somethings aren't adolescents, but in today's world, they're not adults, either. Readers figured that out a while back, and now New York City is finally catching up.

P.S. Don't miss the additional opinions/thoughts in the comments!

11 comments:

Rachel Searles said...

Different strokes for different folks. I don't really think delaying kids and a mortgage is a sign of extended adolescence. I don't have a mortgage because I prefer renting, and I don't have kids yet because my husband and I spent our 20s and early 30s working on building up our careers and made the conscious decision to start a family after we'd achieved financial security. Yes, I've done more travel than I would have been able to otherwise, but I think seeing other parts of the world makes me a better informed and more grounded adult rather than the opposite.

That said, you're right, it is more common today for people to marry and start a family later in life than our parents did. I just think it's a cliche to call it an extended adolescence when many of us spend the majority of those years working our butts off in grad school and careers. Yes, readers' appetites are changing, and they will continue to change, just like our society.

E.D. said...

I agree - you can look at it both ways. That extended adolescence can be just that, enjoying and taking one's time to grow up, or, as in Rachel's and my case, taking the time to earn degrees, start careers, and, whenever possible, travel. Either way, the market is addressing both segments as our society keeps evolving.

jennifermhartsock said...

I would prefer to call it a period of great discovery and change that encourages "finding yourself" through new experiences. I think society has become more lax on the "develop a career and a family pronto" mentality, and I prefer it this way. I know many adults who went to college and picked something and stuck with it, not knowing for sure what they really wanted to do. For college students these days, it seems we're spending a little more time switching around degrees, or taking time off to get a more hands-on experience in the field before making a final decision. Some may see it as being more lazy, but I tend to think of it as being less stressed and pressure to "Get ahead fast."

Take care,
Jennifer

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Thanks, all, for sharing your thoughts. I certainly wasn't trying to imply that the way I lived my twenties is the only way to live life; I know people have different goals, different viewpoints. And perhaps when I said people aren't growing up as quickly, I didn't say precisely what I meant. A few more thoughts:

I'm going to go against the majority here and say that I don't think working hard in and of itself is a marker of adulthood. It's an admirable quality, sure, but I know a lot of actual adolescents who work hard, too. What I meant was that adolescence is a very me-centered time and a lot of people are carrying that mentality into their twenties.

I also went to college, earned two degrees, and worked for a short time in my chosen field, but I didn't include those things in my list because I was still living a very me-centered life. I was focused on my education, my goals, my career. It wasn't until I got married--and especially until I had kids--that I started planting hooks that I couldn't have uprooted with two weeks' notice.

I'm not saying this extended adolescence is necessarily a bad thing and that everyone should get married the year they graduate from high school. (Heck, no!) And there are definitely a lot of parents in this world who don't take those responsibilities seriously and are still living a very me-centered lifestyle. I'm also not saying that parents should have to set their dreams aside and focus exclusively on their children (obviously, since I'm still pursuing my dream of publication).

What I am saying is that society has changed, the way a lot of people live life has changed, and the market is finally figuring that out.

Ru said...

loooong comment alert:

While I agree that lifestyles are changing, I'm not sure NA literature addresses that, except indirectly. In my mind, NA literature is distinguished from YA by one key fact: it's about taking your first steps into adulthood alone. And that doesn't extend much past the college-age years unless your emotional development is seriously derailed for some reason. I think NA is getting a spotlight now for the same reason YA got a jump start a few decades ago that really kicked into overdrive over the last few years -- it was simply a category that was previously under served.

Where I differ is the idea that people aren't "growing up" as quickly as they used to. I don't think delaying the former markers of "adulthood" is what makes a person an adult or an adolescent (that would make child brides "adults"), and I also disagree that the key is whether you're a "me-focused" person or an "others-focused" person. In my mind, it's simply a "can I rely on myself to take care of myself" question. Whether you are focused on yourself or others is an entirely different issue. As you note, there are people who are adults who are selfish. But I don't think that makes them less "grown up."

To bring it back to NA: yes, lifestyles are changing. But I also think there is something interesting about HOW people become adults now. Like I said, I think the definition of adult is "self-sufficiency." But what does self-sufficiency mean in 2013? Are you self-sufficient if you're sitting on a mountain of student loan debt? Are you self-sufficient if you are working a temp job because your college degree actually can't get you a better one? I think you the answer, although unsatisfying, is still yes, because you're relying on yourself to take care of yourself, and no one else is going to do it for you.

However, I think that sort of financial insecurity undermines the ability of a lot of people to BELIEVE that is true. Which is why I think a lot of them are taking comfort in the fact that a lot of people are experiencing the same problem, and reading stories about "new adults" who are coming out on top. I don't think untethered 20-somethings view themselves as people who haven't "grown up." I think they know they've grown up, but they just doubt how successfully they've done it.

Carrie-Anne said...

I write historical, so I'm not really convinced my books with NA-aged characters would really be considered NA. At most, my books with teens might be considered NA, since the typical teen experience of the past was more like NA than YA by modern standards.

I think there's a real need for NA books, and I even did a group project on it for my YA Lit class last semester. Since the classification is so new, it's still ironing out definitions and genres. I still think a historical with characters who age from their late teens to their early twenties would be considered adult, period, since outside of religious communities, most people these days can't relate to getting married, starting a family, and buying a house or starting a first apartment home that young. There was no sense of slowly transitioning from young adulthood to full adulthood.

Personally, I'm not a big fan of age-based categories in literature, period. There was far less pigeonholing of books based on characters' ages when I was growing up. Just because a character is a certain age doesn't automatically mean the book has to be in YA, MG, NA, or adult. It's more about subject matter, voice, and tone.

Melodie Wright said...

So McGuire wrote a sequel to Beautiful Disaster? Oy.
My thinking on NA is that it focuses on college-age and those early-20s experiences before leaving school. Or that's what the people are NA Alley seem to say. And I'm not sure that people aren't growing up as quickly...I think it's more a reflection of two facts - the average college debt being around $25K and it's so hard to get a self-supporting job these days. Combined, this means more 20-somethings can't afford to live on their own.
Does this result in an extended period of adolescence? Maybe. But the hard reality is, it's tough on there. Esp. when you're saddle with more debt than I ever had to bear before buying a house.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Ru, I think it's because lifestyles are changing that New Adult has room to grow, though I don't think it's there yet. As several others have mentioned, New Adult seems to be code for smutty chick lit at the moment, though I certainly hope that changes.

Also, I think your criterion for defining adulthood, self-sufficiency, is an interesting one. That's certainly a marker of adulthood, though as you mentioned, it's harder to define in this day and age of student loans and consumer debt. The truth is, it's probably a combination of all of these things (and many more), and how much of each quality you exhibit depends on your personality and the life you've lived so far.

Carrie-Anne, you make a great point about using the protagonist's age to determine the category. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, for instance, might have featured a young protagonist, but when I read that book as a fourteen-year-old, slightly past Scout's age, a lot of the symbolism went right over my head. It wasn't until I read that book as an adult that I really got it. I think a lot of people consider MOCKINGBIRD to be adult literature, but a lot of middle schools and junior highs still teach it (though not very well).

Melodie, I think a lot of people are still trying to figure out what the heck New Adult even is. Kelly Jensen (@catagator) recently pointed out on Twitter that what writers want to call NA is very different than what's being acquired in the category (at least according to the deal listings on Publishers Marketplace). And on the topic of debt, you're absolutely right--I was lucky enough to get a scholarship AND go to a school where tuition rates were heavily subsidized by the private organization that ran it. (I paid about $2,000 a semester for an education that should have cost me $10,000 or $12,000 a semester.) I don't know what I would have done if I'd had to rack up the kinds of debt that so many other college students do these days...

Mónica Bustamante Wagner said...

Teehee! No wonder we're friends. I got married at 20, too, and by the time I was 28 I already had 3 kids. You know that, but I'm just saying, cuz yeah, we're kinda walking anomalies! :P

HEATHER LYNNE DAVIS said...

This topic is so interesting. So far, it does look like most books labeled NA are really a kind of steamy Harlequin romance for college students. I'm hoping more literary NA stories will start to come out. Actually, I'm sure there is literary fiction out there that addresses coming-of-age issues for this age bracket but they are not categorized as NA. I certainly think the transition to really understanding who we are as autonomous people is the true focus of NA. It doesn't matter if who you are is a young mother, a college student, or factory worker. That struggle to pin down our identities is universal. I can even image an NA novel about someone who gets married and pregnant young but realizes that she still doesn't know who she really is. What then? That's probably a less sexy premise than college girls gone wild but is no less valid. I think one reason NA could only be big now though, is because young women have so many choices now. 100 years ago, the options were much more limited. The freedom we have now is a very scary thing in some ways. I was far far from having a healthy relationship and babies in my twenties. And was searching in a big way and made lots of mistakes. Ironically, however, I don't think I really knew who I was until I had kids. I've got at least several NA stories ripe for the picking!!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Monica, we must have been twins separated at birth! They sure dragged one of us a LONG way to make sure we never found each other. We sure fooled them! ;)

Heather, I think those ideas would make great NA books! And you're right when you say that people, especially women, have a lot more options now. The tricky part is using them wisely.