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