Delayed Transition from Adolescence to Adulthood: an Expected Response to the Economic Conditions at Entry into the Workforce.
“Delaying adulthood is not new and it is not harmful – if used safely and well” – Adam Gamoran, Ph.D., President, William T. Grant Foundation
In recent years, experts and the general public have blamed Millennials and Gen Zers for being uniquely reluctant to grow up. They believe that today’s young adults are trapped in a prolonged adolescence because they are coddled, unaccountable, self-centered, and more resistant than previous generations to taking on adult responsibilities. They view the specific developmental challenges of emerging adults – feeling insecure, questioning identities, and struggling to find purpose – as evidence of immaturity.
Compared to the mid-20th century, young adults in the United States tend to be slow to reach the markers of adulthood, i.e., finishing school, leaving home, finding work, finding a life partner, and having children. Although many young adults reach adulthood before these five markers are met, a combination of these benchmarks is often used to define adulthood.
Today's youth reach the benchmarks of adulthood in similar time frames as their peers of a century ago
Looking at a broader historical period, over a century, a different pattern emerges. In fact, at the end of the 19th century, youth reached adulthood at similar ages to today's youth. In 1890, despite a life expectancy of less than 50 years, the median age of first marriage was 26 for men, and 22 for women. The proportion of young adults (18-29) living with their parents was 41% in 1900 and 48% in the aftermath of the Great Depression. That number dipped to 29% in 1960, before rising steadily to 47% in early 2020, just before the start of the pandemic. Considering this longer time frame, it becomes clear that the young adults of the 1950s were outliers. The well-paying manufacturing jobs that abounded in the 1950s did not exist in the 1890s. In short, today's youth reach the benchmarks of adulthood in surprisingly similar time frames to those of youth a century ago.
Today, the economy is once again in transition, affecting the ability of young adults to navigate their way to adulthood. The rise of a knowledge-based economy means that this generation needs more education and sustained training to acquire the skills necessary for financial prosperity. Achieving financial stability with only a high school diploma is harder today than in previous decades. Many entry-level jobs now require a college degree, which takes time to obtain.
Professors Hill and Redding convincingly debunk the widespread view that today's youth are fundamentally different from their counterparts of half a century ago. Having analyzed an abandoned archive of Harvard students’ recordings from the 1970s, they found parallels with earlier generations and help us understand why and when young people need more time to transition to adulthood. The psychological challenges inherent in becoming an adult today - such as feeling overwhelmed because one doesn’t know what the best path forward is or how to go about it - are not so dissimilar from the concerns of the older cohort. Students' concerns, anxieties, and goals seem to transcend time and echo the voices of today's students.
The benefits of extending adolescence and delaying adulthood
Meanwhile, Hill and Redding offer an alternative view that praises the benefits of extending adolescence and delaying adulthood to build a meaningful future. In fact, young adults thrive when we give them the space they need to develop; time for self-discovery, the ability to connect their sense of purpose with a profession, the experience of community while staying connected to home, and the development of the cognitive skills required to make good decisions.
According to Hill and Redding there are three major ways to support and prepare young adults for the transition from adolescence to adulthood:
1) Identify and normalize the challenges involved in transitioning: It is very important to create a sense of empathy by naming and normalizing the challenges of transitioning to college: namely, asking important developmental questions such as: who am I, what are my values, what do I want from the future? How am I changing? How will I integrate into a new environment, build new relationships? Students often mistakenly assume that everyone around them has it all figured out and under control when everyone else feels equally lost.
2) Foster mentorship: One of their key findings pertains to the powerful role that mentors can play. Young adults rely heavily on mentors to help them understand the steps they need to take to get on a path to realize their goals. Mentors can play three types of roles: a) Mirror: mentors who are mirrors are people who hold up a mirror that reflects and affirms who the young adult really is. The mentor can confirm that a student may be gifted in an area that he or she has doubts about b) Window: mentors who are windows broaden students’ horizon on an interest that they may want to explore and link to existing interests. For example: How could I be a musician and a physicist? c) Guiding light: mentors who are guiding lights are mentors who show them how to do things.
3) Focus on establishing authentic communication: In their interviews, Hill and Redding discovered that young people wanted their parents to listen carefully, not to judge them during their self-discovery phase, but to have real authentic discussions about who they were and who they were becoming. Instead, many experienced strong parental pressure to comply with their parents’ wishes. According to Hill, parents should give up their former role of authority and listen to their children instead of trying to solve their problems.
To summarize, the transition time to adulthood has more to do with the ability to enter the labor market than with perceived youth apathy. Young people take the steps to adulthood later, when jobs that lead to financial independence are scarce or require additional training.