I have long argued in my own writing that adulthood no longer actually occurs in our culture at the point that most of us say that it begins (twenty to twenty-two). A recent New York Times article by Patricia Cohen, Long Road to Adulthood is Growing Even Longer bears this out with an accruing host of facts and figures.
Social scientists and policy makers are noticing that there is a newly emerging phase in many Americans’ lives in which they are no longer adolescents and not yet adults. Obama’s shift to allow children up to twenty-six to be on their parents’ health insurance plans, as well as shifts in the average age for marriage now (27 for males, 27 for females) underscore the late blooming trend.
As parents, this may mean that we must brace ourselves for continued work and expense well into our kids’ twenties (average parents spend $38,000 in cash and two years of labor on their kids during their twenties); but for our emerging generation of kids it means more mature parents, more selective parents (it’s now becoming more of a lifestyle choice than an automatic expectation with 20% of women in their forties currently not having kids) and better educated moms (54% of moms now have college educations, up from 41% in 1990—a very significant shift).
One reason that I think young people have tapped the brakes on accelerating into being grown-ups is that we, and the generation that preceded us, utterly failed to make growing up look fun. Materialism, poor health choices, stress, resentments and general disregard for the generations to follow, as a group, seems to have often denied our elders of lives fully appreciated. If Erik Erickson’s final life stage is ego-integrity vs. despair (i.e. feeling that we lived life in a way we’re fully glad of and enjoy looking back and enjoy being mature older adults vs. feeling plagued by regret, remorse, etc.) I think our parents’ generation appears to me to be more abandoned, isolated and frightened than the elderly who preceded them.
Grown-up unhappiness has inadvertently sent a problematic message to us and, by extension, to our progeny. The tone seems to have been that one can have it all, that it’s all about fun and “success,” (meaning money) and yet it costs more and more to enter the game (from a graduate educational perspective in particular) and there are less and less high paying jobs waiting even for the most school achieving and the most pedigreed. It looks a lot like there was a societal bait and switch in which we clamored for the good life only to find that it’s out of stock (literally).
This, in my view, is not a factor of “the economy” as something like the weather that will inevitably change if we wait a while; it is more like global warming—a sea change in which slowing growth means that the same approach taken last century will not have the same result (i.e. a big house in the suburbs, big retirement accounts, etc.).
The futility of hard work combined with a diminished sense of taking social interest in the group (Washington and politics are fairly widely distrusted, big business likewise, noble professions like teaching can hardly be expected to offer one a solid middle class lifestyle, or a reasonable chance to buy a home in many large metropolitan areas) also mingles, especially in the ranks of more privileged emerging adults, with the dilemma of trying to choose something truly worth bothering to do (and this includes marriage and particularly parenting).
The sexy fun jobs like the arts have dim prospects for the average aspirant; even things like medicine and law are starting to look like bad bets when weighed against the cost of these educations (and with medicine, the grueling years before one can even hope to make a good living).
It seems worth keeping in mind the overall climate of our culture when we consider why kids are taking so long to grow up these days. Those who play it safe (i.e. engineering) often think of their choices as boring, while those who risk things like the arts are typically looking at some years of restaurant work with no guarantees. I know in my own case it was as thirty neared that I realized that I did not want to be a temp secretary at 50—and thus it was the big 30 that got me soberly serious about taking on more debt and going back to school as a newly minted would-be grown-up and newly wed guy to boot.
Maybe I was ahead of the curve in truly starting to grow up at thirty way back in 1990, but now I see the silver lining that comes from risking and following dreams—for even if they fall short, at least you are not haunted by “what if…”
Do you fear having your kids living in your house as they move through their twenties and beyond? Or could this be a pleasant hedge against empty nest syndrome?
Would our society be happier overall if families once again lived in a bit more communally? Or would we all just make each other crazy? And will economics dictate living more together whether we like it or not?
For now perhaps we can dedicate today to supporting each other not just to grow up, but to enjoy it—and to trust that even if extended years of care-giving may be expensive and a bit exhausting, it may inadvertently end up increasing our feelings of connectedness and of happiness.
Maybe we’ll even re-think the concept of growing “up” and trend toward a concept of growing “together.” I think this sort of thinking might benefit all of us as well as our collective children (no matter how old they may be).