Why Are American Kids Delaying Adulthood?

A recent study found American teenagers’ behavior has changed a lot over the past few decades. On one hand, risky behavior is down, at least in terms of underage drinking and sexual activity. But on the other hand, kids are waiting longer to get their first paid jobs, learn to drive, and go on dates. In the words of the lead researcher, they are delaying “both the pleasures and responsibilities” of growing up.

What are parents to make of this? Are teenagers becoming more sensible or trapping themselves in states of arrested adolescence? Should we applaud the decreased risk and lament the delayed adulthood?

I’m unsure. Maybe you are, too.

What’s going on here?

Here’s my first question: Do we know whether delayed adulthood is a choice by young people or an inevitable response to new conditions? In previous generations, many young people worked out of financial necessity, to support their families. Some started “work” at age 18 because they were drafted into the military. And while all 50 states set the drinking age at 21 today, in decades past, many allowed alcohol sales beginning at 18, which means many teenage drinkers weren’t breaking any rules.

Another question: Are young people in less of a hurry because life spans are longer? The typical child born in 1960 could expect to live just under 70 years; by 1990, it had increased more than five years. Maybe pressure to accelerate into adulthood has decreased because there is more time to get married, have kids, and so forth. If so, is that a big deal?

And finally, do we know there are significant long-term consequences to forestalling the responsibilities to adulthood? I can see an argument that plenty of young adults lead healthy, productive lives without having a first paid job, learning to drive, or going on “dates,” whatever that means today. Those are certainly rites of passage and can be important milestones. But are they pre-requisites?

Troublesome trends

Even so, I think this trend bears watching and I will admit that it gives me some worry. The common theme is declining independence. Other studies have reported that today’s young Americans are living with their parents at much higher rates and for longer periods of time than earlier generations. They are more hesitant to relocate, whether for jobs or to be in a community where they can afford to own a home.

At first, I thought maybe we’re simply witnessing the continuation of trends that extend much further back, and making the mistake of believing they are new. However, the evidence seems to suggest otherwise. For instance, the average age at which Americans got married actually declined between 1900 and 1974. In 1900, the median male getting married for the first time was 25.9. In 1972, he was 24.1. Then things really started to change. By 1984, the median age for men had risen to 25.4; by 1994, it was 26.7; by 2004, it was 27.4; and by 2014, it had risen all the way to 29.3. Wow. Figures for women follow a similar pattern – you can see them all here. Good thing or bad thing? Are Americans waiting too long to get married?

In the 1990s, when Robert Putnam began to describe the fraying of American civic engagement and social fabric in his famous piece, Bowling Alone, he identified an interesting culprit: television. The advent of television altered our daily habits profoundly.

Today, many experts worry that another technological innovation is responsible for big social shifts: smartphones. Teens are spending incredible amounts of time by themselves, looking at screens, in extended states of semi-isolation. They may not be out drinking and driving, but the more time they spend with their devices, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression. They are plugged into social networks constantly – and yet not truly socializing in healthy ways.

What does this mean for parents?

Here at EdNavigator, we have three basic takeaways:

1. Be aware of these trends. They may or may not accurately describe your child in particular. However, if your child is growing up in a context where adolescents are generally delaying the onset of adulthood, it matters. This is a different world than you probably experienced as a youth. Invest time in better understanding it.

2. Develop a deliberate, concrete plan for how to support your child’s transition to independence. Don’t just cross your fingers and hope for the best. At what age do you want your child to get their own smartphone? What rules do you want to establish for usage? How are you going to communicate about this with your child? And how will you enforce the rules of the road? When it comes to summer jobs and earning money, at what age is that appropriate, given your context? And so on.

3. Model positive social behaviors. When we want our kids to do something, there is nothing more effective than doing that thing ourselves, over and over, in their presence. Ask yourself how much time you spend actively engaging in healthy social relationships versus the time you spend engaged with television or other screen devices. Be connected, not just virtually, but physically and emotionally, to your wider community. Show up at stuff. Volunteer. Participate. Include your children in that activity.

For now, I am glad teenagers are displaying fewer risky behaviors. But I truly hope slower progression into adulthood does not mean young people are less prepared to be adults when the time comes. As parents, we will have big influence over which way it goes.

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