Once regarded as a Generation-X anomaly, social scientists and news publications around the world now observe a frightening trend in young adults: a marked failure to leave home, find a career, attain what most regard as “adulthood”. The reported lack of maturity manifests itself not just in observation, but in real-world statistics: the percentage of 26-year-olds that live with their parents has nearly doubled since 1970, from 11% to 20% according to a University of Michigan study. The average college experience now takes five years, not four. This new agegroup of immature adults has a variety of names around the world- boomerang kids(Canada), nest-squatter(Germany), adultescents (a few US social scientists), and so on. Japan’s parliament even staged a debate on the disturbing reliance of today’s 20-somethings on their parents. But in some ways, this trend follows historical example.
Before the Renaissance, children did not exist. Of course, the age group did not fail to appear, but pre-Renaissance peoples thought of children as miniature adults more than their own stage in human development. Accordingly, children of the pre-Renaissance had to undertake much higher responsibilities, and enjoyed less education and emotional feedback than their modern equivalents.
Then, some time around the Renaissance, childhood came into existence. Society began to see its younger members as less than fully molded, emotionally delicate and needy. At the same time they receive more coddling, longer educational lives, and more parental patience with less physical punishment. In time it became psychologically clear that children did not posses the same mental and emotional strength as adults, just as they did not possess the same physical development.
Can we consider it a coincidence that this period of improved childrearing corresponded to a boom in music, art, literature, and culture? Drs Stanley Greenspan and Stuart Shanker, authors of This First Idea and my source for the information in the above two paragraphs, don’t think so.
What happened in the Renaissance with children also eventually happened to teenagers. Before the 1940s, the word and the concept of “teenager” did not exist in the western world. As once we did with children, we expected teens to live and act very much like adults.
But with time, society discovered another new age group entirely different from adults. As such, the demands and social understanding of adolescents- teens- shifted, and age of expected maturity rose once again. We now know that teens indeed have different minds and emotions from adults, and this has helped us in matters of education, social acceptance, and even in determining punishment for juvenile delinquents.
A minor version of what happened to children in the Renaissance and teens in the 1940s happened to the age group in between the two during the 1990s. “Tween” now occupies the vocabulary of those who either raise or market to preadolescents. And so again our understanding of age had telescoped.
Why does this matter? Because it appears as though age may telescope yet again. As reported in Time Magazine last year, twenty-somethings now seem to mature later and later in life. Ever since it has become the norm for young adults to stay at home and attend college, late teens and early-20-somethings have relied increasingly on Mom and/or Dad. At a time when children once moved out and established their own families, this age group now lives at home, works part-time at best, and leans on the parentals for food, laundry, housing, and even cellphone and car insurance bills, as well as the full breadth of emotional support. The current state of parent-reliance has reached an unprecedented level around the industrialized world.
To me, this trend suggests we might soon consider 20-somethings less-than-adult. Time coined a term for the demographic- “twixters”. Will we soon expect less of them, coddle them more as a society, see them as not fully formed as well?
Such a development could have its share of positive effects. In time, we might discover that twixters’ really do profit in an environment that allows them to experiment, explore, and learn without the abatement of working life and responsibility. Perhaps in the right environment, twixters could flourish and bring about another vast cultural expansion like the Renaissance or early baby boom.
Or will we label something that doesn’t exist? If maturity continues to telescope, when will humans finally reach adulthood? Can we expect modern parents to raise their offspring for more than two decades? It appears to me that labeling a generation makes it easier to excuse its “failure to launch”. With the trying economy we face, perhaps twixters feel they have no choice but to rely on their more stable parents. Or they face too much choice in our growing world, and can’t decide on a career. Or the middleclass lifestyle has choked them and they do not wish to accept it. We have no answers yet, just one more question: If 18-year-olds could behave independently a century ago and 13-year-olds nearly could centuries before that, what stops modern 23-year-olds?