prolonged adolescence

image courtesy of masters-of-photography

At what point do we become adults?

The once accepted answers of 18, 21, high school graduation, or even college graduation are no longer viewed as either accurate or acceptable.  In the U.S., we’re currently experiencing a “prolonged adolescence” — or the politically correct way of saying it, “emerging adulthood.”

More and more of our 20-something year olds are remaining dependent on their parents for longer, whether that is demonstrated by living at home or by dad writing the checks for graduate school.  I’m guessing the average age at marriage for my parents’ generation was 21 or so.  And now I’d put that average at 27 or 28?  When I started college in 1995, only 16 years ago (that’s longer than I thought), I moved into my own apartment, paid my own bills (including gas and car insurance), and worked.  I realize my experience may not have been the norm for the class of ’95, but I guarantee it was more common then than now.  And 20 years earlier it may very well have been the norm.

Some, led by psychology professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, argue that “emerging adulthood” is a new developmental stage through which humans must pass.  I think that’s ridiculous, though, as this new “stage” is by no means universal.  I’ve certainly not witnessed such a thing as extended adolescence here in Tanzania.  And I can’t imagine that this emerging adulthood phenomenon is happening much of anywhere outside developed and western countries.  [I’ll even argue later that it’s happening less in small-town, rural America.]

Why is This Happening?

Arnett does, though, offer some interesting cultural changes that have lead to our current situation:

  • the need for more education to survive in an information-based economy
  • fewer entry-level jobs even after all that schooling
  • young people feeling less rush to marry because of the general acceptance of premarital sex, cohabitation and birth control
  • young women feeling less rush to have babies given their wide range of career options and their access to assisted reproductive technology if they delay pregnancy beyond their most fertile years

There are a lot of other contributing factors being offered for this prolonged adolescence in modern-day America.  One of the best lists I’ve seen is by Jason Young in his article, “Is Extended Adolescence a Real Issue?”:

  • American affluence
  • economic shifts
  • older adults trying to act young again
  • higher education requirements
  • helicopter parents
  • perceiving adulthood as no fun
  • our industrialized culture
  • the enabling of familial environments
  • delayed responsibility
  • their personal family experience
  • society’s technological advancements

The Absence of Adult Role Models (or time spent with them)

And, of course, I want to weigh in with my own thoughts.  [I should preface these thoughts, though, by admitting that I have (little to) no formal training in psychology or sociology.  Nor have I done any research on the matter.  I’m just another blogger who believes his opinion should be read and counted for something, despite the fact that I have no expertise in this field.  Unless common sense counts.]

I believe this shift is largely due to the increase in time children and teenagers are spending with other children and teenagers — without functioning adults present.  Think about it… rarely anymore do teenagers take part in regular, everyday activities with adults.  They have their own events, activities, and programs in which they participate only with their age-group peers.  And if they do attend events or activities alongside adults, the youth form their own small groups in which they sit, eat, and converse.  Adults are merely a ride to the event or a human-sized wallet for buying food.  There generally isn’t much interaction between the two groups.

When adults do participate with youth, they seem most often to play the role of chaperone — meaning that the program is still one for the youth, and adults are merely present.  The youth in this situation are being trained to consume the adults’ offerings while maintaining their homogeneous social group.

It’s important for youth to spend time with adults who are functioning as adults, not who are chaperoning events.  For that matter, children these days are rarely able to see their own parents play any role other than parent.  I remember as a small child when I went to work with my dad — or to his weekly basketball games.  I was able to see my dad functioning as a working and playing adult; he became more than just a parent.  And I’m sure I learned much in those situations about how to interact with people while doing business or playing sports.

Prolonged Adolescence in Church

During my life I’ve had the opportunity to visit several small, rural churches across the southeast United States.  And it seems to me that these youth have far fewer problems moving into responsible adulthood than many others.  [Many of those on farms already have greater responsibilities and work harder than will most college students.]  There may be some youth group events in these churches, but the bulk of their church time together is just that — time together. All ages.  There are church-wide retreats and ice cream socials, and their mission trips consist of Christians of all ages going to serve elsewhere (rather than youth going with adult chaperones).  There seems to be a lot of time spent with one’s family, alongside other families.

Contrast those small, rural churches with the youth groups of 200+ we find in much larger churches.  These students are separate and apart in almost all things from the rest of the church.  They have their own Sunday School classes, their own fellowship hall, their own retreats and camps, their own worship time, their own mission trips, and we could go on and on.  Our large churches are encouraging youth to spend time only with other youth — and occasionally even with ministers who act as much like youth as possible.

Young people are not being discipled in becoming mature and responsible adults in the kingdom of heaven.  They’re being told what it means to be an adult, but they are rarely encouraged (or forced) to be in a position to witness it, study it, experience it, or practice it.  Instead, our youth are permitted to be their own little consumer cities.  And they’re encouraged to remain that way at least until they reach college, and probably longer.

I’m afraid the first substantial and real life contact these emerging adults will ever have with mature and responsible adults will be when they enter the workplace.  And so, that is when they will complete the process of growing up.

What do you think?


Other articles that might be of interest:

“This is Why I’ll Never be an Adult,” a great cartoon from Hyperbole and a Half

“What Is It About 20-Somethings?” by Robin Marantz Henig in The New York Times

We’re in the thick of what one sociologist calls “the changing timetable for adulthood.” Sociologists traditionally define the “transition to adulthood” as marked by five milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child. In 1960, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had, by the time they reached 30, passed all five milestones. Among 30-year-olds in 2000, according to data from the United States Census Bureau, fewer than half of the women and one-third of the men had done so. A Canadian study reported that a typical 30-year-old in 2001 had completed the same number of milestones as a 25-year-old in the early ’70s.

“Is Extended Adolescence a Real Issue?” by Jason Young

“What to do with Emerging Adults” by Matthew Lee Anderson



Filed under family, just thinking

23 responses to “prolonged adolescence

  1. Very well said Brett! You make an excellent point about the amount of time young people spend with their peers – as opposed to their parents.

    I heard something on a popular radio show yesterday that said “research shows” kids who have chores and responsibilites at home will have better work ethic and higher self esteem. (Novel concept!)

    Then, while I was at the Doctor’s office with 5 of our children for well checks I was asked the typical develpmental milestone questions, which include the “how do you discipline them” topic. (Because, if I dared to say I spank my children, I may be offered anger management courses or at least suggestions would be made for more ‘appropriate’ discipline techniques.)

    This is something I think about a lot raising a brood of children. Especially when questioned about how we are going to provide college for all of them. This is OBVIOUSLY our parental responsibility! Lest these poor children should actually have to work….
    Or when people tell me how expensive it is to have a large family (since bestowing upon them adequate nutrition, clothing, shelter, education, time, and love is surely not enough.)

    All this to say, I believe the prolonged adolescence issue in the United States begins very young – like, say, at birth.
    Giving chores around the house has become unusual.
    What was once considered normal and appropriate and expected discipline has now become harsh and perhaps socially unacceptable.
    Parents are expected to continue to provide for their kids, even when they reach young adulthood and are perfectly capable of gaining employment.

    Entitlement runs rampant and there is excessive excess everywhere we look, so instilling a sense of service and a good work ethic with our kids proves challenging – it’s going against the cultural grain in 2011. I’m glad people are talking about this. Hopefully the pendulum will begin to swing back once some of the fallout from this “prolonged adolescence” is recognized.

    • good ideas, tisha. and we know someone has experience raising a family when they can say this phrase:

      “with 5 of our children”

      i remember looking around in high school and college and thinking two things:

      1. it’s unfair that i have to pay all this stuff myself while everyone just has it bought for them.
      2. but a lot of these people are either spoiled brats or really immature — or both.

      i’m not saying i was exceptional in my maturity; actually, when it comes to spiritual maturity, i was WAY behind where i wish i’d been. but i think there is much to be said, as you have, about entitlement, chores, discipline, etc.

    • ^———-yeah, what she said.

  2. Brett, I suspect a contributing factor for a portion of the twenty-somethings delaying independent living is their standard of living. If a twenty-seven year old gets a job and lives with parent(s)–without any financial obligations toward the household–he/she can often have a higher standard of living than the parents! In this situation the parents are actually subsidizing this young adult’s ability to live beyond her/his means, because in this arrangement all of the income is discretionary. How long will it be before an independent young adult of the same age will have so much discretionary income?

    Now if that same time period was used to save for the purchase of a home, it might give this young adult the ability to avoid thousands of dollars in interest on a home mortgage. But all of this points back to the parents. Have they unknowingly (or intentionally) subsidized? Or have they transferred financial responsibilities to their working children?

    Imagine the scenario of your teenage daughter being provided a cell phone for the purpose of being able to know she has arrived safely to her destinations. She has a part-time job. She decides she wants an I-Phone and all the data features. How parents deal with this situation will go far in setting the course for this young lady.

    • good idea on the standard of living thing; parents are subsidizing their children’s ability to live beyond their means. and it’s made even worse when they’re borrowing money (credit cards) to do so.

      your iphone situation reminds me of every time i got new shoes as a child. my parents would pay some set amount (i think it was $40?), and anything above that i had to pay myself. $40 was enough to get a pair of nikes to play basketball in — but not a pair of these great new shoes they’d just come out with called nike airs.


    This is not an issue only in the USA but also here in Canada – particularly within MANY (if not all) ethnic churches here in Canada (and the USA) that have “English services”.

    I think you nailed it when you pointed out that youth today grow up and worship in their own context without the discipleship of older people. That was my experience growing up and I lacked so much valuable wisdom and life experience because we worshiped in an “English ministry”.

    Author Robert Webber notes in his book Ancient-Future Evangelism that churches need to move back to a model where EVERYONE, young and old, worships together in the same room – although the children may need to be tended to in some sort of manner, but faith needs to be a life long journey as a community.

    Awesome post!

    • thich, thanks for the kind words. tell me, what do you mean by “english services?”

      i like what this webber guy suggests about worship, though i want to go several steps further and say that we ought to be doing nearly everything together, youth and old alike. for instance, why do the youth have a work day by themselves in which they cut grass and trim hedges for people who can’t do that for themselves? is it because the adults aren’t willing to give up their day off that week to do such? kids have got to see adults living in the kingdom and serving others if we have any chance of children growing up to be anything more than youth group chaperones.

  4. Eagle

    Interesting…I was talking about this issue with my parents recently. I think the issue is related to the changing economy. My Mom was telling me that her father who worked for International Harvestor for 50 years in Chicago would not have survived in today’s environment. He never went beyond high school, and the only options available were factory work. Today many of those jobs have been exported to Asia and beyond.

    But I think of other contributing reasons to that issue:

    1. Increased student loan debt which ie going up more and more and restricting younger people.
    2. Too much competition made worse by the worst recession since the Depression. People who would have retired and left their high wage jobs due to their age have deceided to stay in them longer after losing parts of their retirement in the economic credit crunch of 2008. By staying in these jobs its prventing the younger people from moving into them.
    3. Increased stress and cost of living. Life is much more stressful these days than in the past. Also its faster…I think some people want to relieve their youth in an effort to escape from the stress today.
    4. Its harder to have a family due to changes in the economy and job market. In same cases health care coverage doesn’t cover the entire family. In other cases the family and children may be sacrificed or deferred for years until other financial debts are paid down, job is steady, etc..

    My .02

    • eagle, those are some good ideas. i have no doubt that the economy is “forcing” some of this on us. at the same time, though, for instance, #1 on your list doesn’t affect those who come from wealthy families and have everything paid for by their parents. yet they are in many cases some of the slowest to mature and gain their independence. so responsibility comes in there somewhere.

      also, i’m not sure how i feel about saying that life is more stressful these days. i just wonder if that doesn’t all cancel out from generation to generation? and i believe we deliberately make our lives more stressful through materialism. i think it’s possible to do otherwise.

      and i would assume your grandfather would have survived today. for one thing, a high school diploma back then was at least equal to a college diploma now. but mostly i believe that people who are willing to work hard and be responsible for their actions will generally get by.

  5. JMF

    I hated this post. As an “Emergent Adult”, this post kind of tickled me in a very uncomfortable spot. Actually, I pretty much agree with most of it.

    One thought: In Genesis, men started having their children around the age of 100. That tells me that life growth/decisions are made in proportion to your age. Therefore, it makes sense that adulthood is put off longer — we are living longer.

    The reasons given, however, do not cover all possibilities. I would agree (for myself) that a lack of adult role models wasn’t good. I pretty much went to college where I knew nobody, no close family, rarely saw my fam, and had no close relationships at church. I was mostly self-employed so I wasn’t privy to male leadership at work. I cannot comment on the youth group stuff as it doesn’t apply to me.

    For me, I’ve dealt with some personality issues that have stunted my growth — namely anxiety/panic issues that manifest themselves in ways that negatively effect my life. That has kept me Emergent to an extent.

    That said, I worked through college, did receive *some* parental help in sticky spots, but have taken care of myself since. Had one financial crash… was given some help but nothing extreme. Of course, I made it good as soon as I was able. By worldly standards I’d be considered extremely successful by most… with the exception that my relational life (wife/kids/relationships) is behind a bit.

    THAT said, I’m leaving next week for a two week vacation on the beach where I’ll pretty much golf, fish, workout, read, and lounge the entire time. I’ll stay at a really posh hotel, eat great meals, have good drinks… but do it alone (except for those I meet). Basically, I’ll take a vacation that sounds awesome to me… but would be cost-prohibitive for a family of four. This summer or fall, I’d head out of the country for 3-4 weeks of vaca. Pros and Cons. Would trade the level of luxury I can afford for myself, however, for a loving family any day of the week.

    • i see what you’re saying, though at the same time, you don’t strike me as someone who was late to mature as far as responsibility and adulthood go. you’re just not married. but, then again, i don’t know you so well.

      i think your vacation sounds awesome. but you’re right, i wouldn’t trade my family for it.

  6. Many of the folks I know , don’t want to spend the time with their kids while at church. They look at it a few ways:

    1) free babysitting ( a reprieve from the daily grind)
    2) where they can get their kids spiritual nourishment (cuz mom and dad don’t do it, won’t do it or don’t know how)
    3) teens especially are now ”scary” to adults.

    Teen Subculture Selfish Center. The TSSC we should call it.
    And parents wonder why they didn’t know Jonny was doing drugs….

    We spent time at my friends farm the other day.
    My kids saw how much responsibility those kids had DAILY.
    They didn’t whine at theirs so much, that day 😉
    *and I am adding more*

    • what’s sad is, (i would guess that) while many parents don’t want to spend time with their teens at church, that’s probably one of the very few places they go together. and i’d argue that inside a church building is one of the less important places for parents to spend time with their kids.

      1) it’s not the “real” world. generally speaking, kids aren’t seeing their parents as adults functioning in a community while at church. they’re liking seeing a religious “act,” attempts to fit into a group.
      2) at a gathering of the saints would be a great place for children to get to watch and learn from mature christian adults other than their own parents.

      another subject: in a lot of ways, i wish i’d grown up on a farm.

  7. I stumbled across your blog through The Church of No People blog. I’m glad I did. I agree with much of what you have said here. Lack of adult role models is a serious issue. I also see that all too often parents give teenagers (and sometime younger children) the privileges of adulthood without the responsibilities. Why would a kid take on the challenges of adulthood when they are already receiving the benefits? This is becoming increasingly detrimental to our society.

    Here’s a little something from C.S. Lewis that ties in:

    “Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

    • katherine, i’m glad you did stumble across the blog. you’re welcome here. and thanks for the comments. i think you’ve also brought up an important point here that i hope other readers have seen — the privileges of adulthood without the responsibilities.

      we’d do well to model after God in this, giving much to him who has been responsible for much.

      it’s at least interesting, though, that our government (in some ways) does the opposite. children don’t have the “privilege” of drinking alcohol until 21, but could “enjoy” the responsibility of serving in the army at only 18. that’s always bothered me…

  8. This phenomenon crops up a fair bit in my Australian Christian circles, too. Mark Sayers covers it on a pretty regular basis, and a ministry of his, Über, has got a few articles that touch on it.

  9. Pingback: are youth ministries killing our churches? | aliens and strangers

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