A new age of immaturity

| June 24, 2006 | 8 Replies

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?

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Category: American Culture, Cultural Evolution, Culture, Economy, Education, Statistics

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    Perhaps there are several reasons why many college students now take five years rather than four to graduate. One, knowledge expands every year, so students today have many more options in what to major in than students did years ago. Two, as a result of expanding knowledge and a rapidly changing world, parents are less able to advise their children about which majors are the best choices. Three, as a result of a rapidly changing world, college majors that are optimal when a student begins college might no longer be optimal when a student finishes college. Four, college is more accessible (and expected) today than it was decades ago, so the odds of a student going to college without clear career goals is arguably greater. Each of these factors could contribute to longer tenures in college.

    As regards boomerang kids, I suspect there is a connection between young adults waiting longer to get married, and young adults returning home to live with parents. The average age at which young adults marry hit a minimum in the 1950s and early 1960s, and has generally been increasing ever since. Since many young adults who aren't married cannot afford to live on their own, an increasing marriage age would lead to an increasing number of people moving back in with their parents. Indeed, it would be interesting to compare the statistics today with those *before* WWII (when the average age at marriage was closer to today's). Young adults living with parents might be more "normal" than we realize, as a result of the post-WWII marriage boom altering perceptions of what is "normal."

  2. Erika Price says:

    The majority of your reasons for the extended length in college attendance make sense. I would consider the "every expanding knowledge" explanation overly optimistic, though. The rest of what you've listed fits with one of the reasons given by college counselors around the country, that college students switch majors two or three times nowadays.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Erika:

    Your post reminds me that I have repeatedly considered myself "grown-up" only to find that 10 years later I changed in significant ways. For instance, I've considered myself grown up at 16 (driver's license), 25 (marriage and the first full-time job), 35 (working a job I especially enjoyed), 43 (becoming a parent) and 50 (recent semi-angst-filled birthday). The parentheticals referrer to ostensible milestones, but I can assure you that numerous intangible/ineffable milestones were also reached along the way. At each of these junctures, I erroneously considered myself to be full-grown. The lesson (one I have taken too long to learn) is that life is filled with stages of development, only some of them well explored or recognized.

    I would not be surprised if we might yet discover and designate numerous additional meaningful stages of adulthood in coming years.

    There might be stages we reach in our early to mid-20s that are different, in terms of needs and strengths, than the stages many of us reach in our late teens or late 20s or mid-30s.

    I agree with your suggestion that factors for twixters staying with the folks include our "trying economy" and our reliance on the middle-class lifestyle. To move out on one's own in this trying economy and yet maintain a middle-class lifestyle makes it difficult to also immerse oneself in an educational process. It's often that money and time thing.

    As to your final question, I would seem as though increased specialization and technology would keep young adults dependent for longer periods. Then again, the military proudly promotes its technology rich career opportunities to 18 year olds.

    How's this meandering response for an "I don't know"?

    Good post!

  4. WhenIgrowup says:

    It is a true concern. Adults mascarading as children. Still there are many obvious and not so obvious reasons why an adult would live with parents at age 26 or more. I didn't see this reason… Having raised 7 children (ages 19-29) from several backgrounds (his, mine, foster and divorced, orphaned, deserted with several religions) I have observed a pattern of maturity which corresponds with brain research. Humans are impulsive, lack comprehension of long term consequences, and insert inexperienced opinion and wishes in place of judgement until about age 23. Permanent actions they take before this age such as marriage, pregnancy, quitting the educational process, even buying a home have turned out to be something they now wish they'd waited to do.

    At this time we have 2 offspring??? living at home. One is still immature at 19. The other is 25 and mature. After the military he lived on his own for a year while attending college full time.Then he asked to return home to recieve the emotional and physical support family members naturally extend each other. His actions are those of an adult who recognizes the long term advantages an education, and displays appreciation for the family by contributing labor, money, and respectful rolemodeling for his sibling. Sometimes an adult goes home because it's home and they now can appreciate and contribute to its success.

    Two of our children have taken the time to grow through each stage to adulthood, their foundations are firm, financially and psychologically. Others would like do-overs because they jumped too fast. Two are still maturing to adulthood. Still, each of them are expected to experience those many stages of growth that continue throughout life. I have many, many years to figure out the who, what, or why of life but when I do finish growing up I want to be an old wise-woman.

  5. gatomjp says:

    Another factor contributing to the increased postponement of maturity has been a growing cultural aversion to "growing up".

    Ever since the anti-authoritarian era of the 60's, becoming an adult was seen as something to be avoided at all costs lest we become old and stuffy "like them". "Hope I die before I get old…" expressed the feelings of many of that and subsequent generations.

    The WWII generation couldn't wait to "get out of short pants", as they used to say, and assume control of their lives. Since then, how many times in the last 40 years have we seen movies and television portray the sober, responsible, mature person as the bad guy and the young, brash, iconoclastic youth as the hero? I remember a particular episode of the TV show Friends in which Chandler Bing was having a near mental breakdown because he was being promoted to a position of responsibility in his company and would therefore have to "grow up". His grandfather would have had a difficult time understanding his angst. I know MINE would!

  6. Xeno says:

    The problem seems to have developed with the rise of consumer led behaviour. The Goal of which is you can have anything and everything and if you can't afford it then get it on credit. Consumerism also encourages crass/fake self expression because by doing so, it can sell you a lifestlye.

    This mentality feeds into the ideals of the spoilt child in that they can have what they want, when they want it with responsiblity for payment being disassociated to a later date or being palmed off onto the parents. I have met too many twenty somethings that want to move out of home into a house with the same luxuries that that have at home. They want to have it all and are unwilling to go through the process of building up their own lives. To me this smacks of lazyness regarding taking responsibility for yourself, which is what this whole thing is really about. There are people out ther that are lazy and this extension of childhood is yet another expression of this and while parents endure it, the offspring get away with it.

  7. Erika Price says:

    Xeno: I think you have a fantastic point here. The average 18-to-24 year old, could, with some difficulty, find a mediocre job that would pay for shelter, food, utilities, and minor luxury. But the average middle-class young adult doesn't want that. They want a cell phone with an expansive plan, a cable box with DVR, video games, movies, a respectable car, a home with many rooms, decent furniture, a vacation budget. Very few self-supporting young adults in either college or the workplace can afford to maintain the lifestyle they enjoyed in their childhood. Yet, to accept less seems impossible.

    I think if these young adults would stop assuming they need a car, a big home or apartment, and oodles of electronics, they could arrive at a liveable level they could afford.

  8. Does anybody think that the idea of marrying in your early twenties or younger and having a baby to be a good one? It kind of was normal, but nowadays most people at this age are considered to be too young, also because most will not have finished their eduation yet, but that was something people were once expected to do at this age. And what if maturity continues to telescope? People are now reaching their 80ies, fitter and healthier than their ancestors who died when they had barely hit their 40ies.

    Anyway, I reached adulthood and was surprised to see how many adults suck. :D

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