Monday, March 13, 2006

Are Young Adults Today Failing to Grow Up?

From Ash:

In yesterday's post, I talked about how I'm not convinced that there's a growing trend in the U.S. of "boomerangs" -- adults moving back home. But I did say that there is evidence of a transformation in just what we think it means to become an adult, and that's what I want to talk about today.

These are, by the way, two separate issues -- and part of the problem with most of the articles I took to task yesterday is that they blurred the issues together -- again, probably due to the fact that that's exactly how Viacom pitched the subject to the media -- Failure to Launch was tied into boomerangs so that they could also sell their boomerang-themed book.

But actually, the movie's characters didn't move back home -- they'd never left to begin with.

And that's touching on a much more fascinating topic that is well-worth exploring: the transformation of adulthood.

Unfortunately, just as the articles about boomerangs err on the side of exaggeration, most articles covering this topic have attention-grabbing headlines like "Young People Today Take Longer To Grow Up!" and are written to make it seem as though younger people are basically immature -- that they are either incapable of becoming mature adults -- or that they are simply refusing to, pretending they are still adolescents. Those articles -- designed to make the baby boomer reading audience feel superior, but not meant to shed some light what is really going on -- are easy to spot. They use disparaging terms like "failed adults" and ask questions like "Why Won't They Grow Up?"

Sociologist Frank Furstenberg and others have identified that there has been a significant decline in the number of young(ish) people who have fulfilled the "traditional benchmarks" of adulthood in the past 40 years. These are the traditional benchmarks we're talking about here:
  • leaving home,
  • finishing school,
  • getting married,
  • having a child,
  • and being financially independent.
It's true in 2000, only 31 percent of men age 30 had done all of those things, whereas in 1960, 65 percent of men had completed that list.

But that's where most media both start and stop (if they've even gotten that far), when it should be just a starting point for their reporting.

Because Furstenberg didn't stop with the decline in fulfilling traditional benchmarks. Instead, his team also found that if we apply a standard of modern benchmarks -- which are defined as: leaving home, finishing school, and being financially independent, and does not include getting married or having children -- then the vast majority of young adults had in fact fulfilled those benchmarks.

But either way, benchmarks can be misleading as a way to judge people. For instance, a woman who dropped out of high school at 17, got pregnant at 18 and was kicked out of her parent's house for it, and now lives alone on welfare - she is, by those benchmarks, fully grown up.

Meanwhile, according to the traditional benchmarks, the following individuals have also failed to complete the process of growing up:

  • Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice (hasn't gotten married, has no children)
  • Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton (has no children)
  • Supreme Court Associate Justice David Souter (only married to his work, has no children)
  • Congressman and former Presidential Candidate David Kucinich (who didn't get until married after having run for President, and is still childless)
  • Former First Lady Barbara Bush (never held a job, dropped out of college, always dependent on family's wealth)
  • Former head of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan (no children, and uh, he's like almost 100)
  • Academy-Award winner George Clooney (hasn't gotten married, has no children -- George -- call me.)
  • Billionaire media tycoon Oprah Winfrey (still hasn't married Steadman, has no children)
Now that I hope we have permanently ended any debate on if traditional benchmarks are the only way to determine adulthood, let's talk about what is really going on.

What we expect from "adults" is fundamentally changing.

We are grown-ups. We just don't have the vocabulary and new symbols we need to prove our case. So we may still feel like we're kids, and fear that, at this rate, we may never grow up.

As Furstenberg and his colleagues explained, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was marriage, children and the ability to support a family that made a boy into a real man. For men, education wasn't really an issue. So men finished their schooling, got a job, got married, and had kids in that order. Which means that men have always completed their benchmarks at ages older than the women have. The day of their "launch" into adulthood was the day they finished school, whenever that was.

For women at that time, marriage and children were synonomous with adulthood. They moved straight into their new husband's home when they got married and they never actually achieved true financial independence. Instead, they just ended their dependence on their parents by becoming dependent on their husbands instead. And thus they fulfilled 4 of the 5 traditional benchmarks of adulthood with a single "I do."

An adult at that time had finished school -- but he wasn't necessarily educated. In 1948, two-thirds of American parents were under 30 years old, and had no education beyond grade school -- little more than an eighth grade education.

In 1960, less than 8 percent of Americans over the age of 25 had a 4-year college degree. By comparison, in 2000, over 25 percent of Americans over 25 had at least a 4-year degree, if not even more than that. Indeed, the population of under-25 year olds in college has increased five-fold since 1955 -- from just under 2 million to over 10 million. But perhaps even more significant is that the percentage of Americans aged 20, 25, and 30 enrolled in school from 1960 to 2000 has also doubled.

So in 1960, most men and women had "finished school" early -- checked off that benchmark -- but they weren't in any way what we'd consider "educated." And experts like Furstenberg now believe that a 4-year college degree isn't just something a select few should aspire to, but basically a prerequisite for just being able to cut it in the middle class.

Another thing to consider is that from the 1960s to 1989, men and women were getting married -- really the defining event in adulthood -- at an aberrationally early age. They were getting married at an age younger than couples got married in 1890! They were so young that, in 1961, the U.S. had both the highest marriage rate and the lowest age at first marriage of the entire industrialized world. Sociologists at the time were worried about it (rightly so, as it turns out -- which is why the divorce rate started skyrocketing a few years down the road.).

The other thing to consider is that, in decades past, there was a clear series of events that defined you as an adult. Schooling, job, marriage, kids, in that order. But now, we fulfill each of those benchmarks separately, and in no particular order.

No longer can a woman automatically become an adult just with a single throwing of the bouquet. Kids leave home at the age of 18 when they go to college, but they may still not have jobs and they're still living on Mom and Dad's dime. (And we don't consider that a bad thing -- instead, most think it's a blessing to be able to afford to do that.) In fact, schooling continues for so long, that many have jobs, get married, and / or have children before finishing their educations. Couples get married but never have children, while still others have children without getting married.

We've also changed what we count as having fulfilled those benchmarks. Just as our definition of finishing school has really become "be an educated person," "getting a job" now means getting a good job. We may not count the McJob as a fast-food server or entry-level gofer as enough to make us a grown-up.

And for women, we really mean financial independence now -- switching from Dad's credit card to your husband's doesn't cut it any more. Even for stay-at-home moms, we still feel like they should be able to work and pay the bills, even if they aren't doing it right now.

The problem is that we still think of adulthood as a series of defined events. And we hurl the labels of the events around. But we don't admit that they mean completely different things than they did 40 years ago. May not even apply today.

Say, for example, a 35-year old working, married mom is an adult. No doubt of that, right? But what if she gets laid off from her job, is forced to be financially dependent on a family member (be it a spouse or parent), and, when she can't find a new job with her experience, she goes to grad school? Is she no longer an adult? That's completely crazy. But it would seem to be true, under both the traditional and modern standards.

The fact of the matter is that we have a new understanding of what makes a grown-up in practice, on an individual level. But we've failed to come up with a new vocabulary for it; we can't quite figure out particular, universal tasks that define adulthood. Rites of passage (graduations, marriage) that used to define phases of life -- now just mark shifts in personal responsibility. For me, the fact that I was legally able to rent a car on my own when I turned 25 made me feel more like a grown-up than when I got my first real job. My best friend just got married at the age of 37. When he told me he was getting engaged, I said, "Wow, congratulations." But it wasn't until a couple months later when he told me that he was trying to buy a house, that I said, "Holy Shit -- you're a grown-up!"

Every newspaper article that broaches the subject of a transforming adulthood, invariably trots out the 35 year old whose mother still does his laundry. (As does the lead character in Failure to Launch.) But that doesn't make him someone who refuses to grow up. That makes him spoiled and selfish -- no matter how young or old he was. The news reports make these people seem babied, when they are really just pampered.

The media reports completely ignore that most of the benchmarks are defined by class and culture. I can't go into the cultural difference in this post, which is long enough, but we have to recognize that Americans expect middle and lower class kids to go out on their own, and as early as possible.

But different rules apply for the rich; we don't expect Paris or Nicky Hilton to give up all the family money and move out of the hotels and houses. We're perfectly happy that the Kennedys all get together at the family compound in Massachusetts and the Bushes have a lovely one in Maine. And their kids aren't failed adults, even if they've never had a job or done anything on their own. If they do accomplish anything on their own, we're surprised and congratulate them. And if rich parents actually force their kids out the door, it's both lauded and controversial. (One of the fathers Po writes about in his book did just that -- and because of it, the guy's now featured in newspapers and having glowing editorials written about him.) And if they don't, we still plaster their kids' pictures on tabloids.

We don't say a millionaire heiress with a personal maid hasn't grown up. We just say she's rich, spoiled, and luckier than we are.

But a middle class 30 year-old has a mom who still picks up after him? He's a "failed adult."

Of course, his mother, who is grateful for his contribution to her mortgage -- one she might not be able to make on her own -- probably would not agree with that assessment.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is amazing about the idea that it takes people longer to grow up.

In my case, the San Francisco Bay Area is one of the most expensive places to live. So many of my friends live at home in order to save money so they can afford to buy their own homes someday.

Thank you for the articles...they make me think!

For me, I find myself feeling more like a grown up when I am proactive. for example, balancing my checkbook, learning how to drive, among other things.

I look forward to getting my first driver's license at the age of 36.

Registering to vote also made me feel like a grown up at the age of 18.

When I say something and feel listened to, then I feel like an adult.

9:48 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Your description of the traditional benchmarks made me sentimental for my late father (one year ago next week).

When asked what he wanted for Christmas or Father's Day, he always replied the same way:

"I have four children. They all have college degress. They all live independently in their own homes with people they love. What more could a father want?"

My parents never let the notion of "coming back" even exist. Granted, they balanced this by paying for at least parts of our college education to ensure a greater chance of our "launch". But once the checks stopped coming from their account, you were officially "unwelcome" in the now empty nest. Not in an unloving way, but in a way that filled us each with a sense of confidence. i.e. "If Dad is SO convinced I can do this, well, then perhaps I can stand on my own two feet (or four if a spouse is involved)."

8:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Something else interesting to think about: are full-time artists still "children" by others' standards? I wish people didn't think so, but as it turns out, they do.

Does it matter that I spent years honing my craft, learning how to work without other outside motivation (harder than it looks!), built up my own consumer/fan base, found some way to mass produce my art as prints, etc. all by myself? Apparently not!

I am my own artist, advertising agency, producer, and manager. Not to mention everyone expects me to get a "real" job, despite my going to school and being chronically ill. It is SO hard to keep up with all of this and deal with the expectations of everyone around me at the same time. Somehow I'm supposed to deal with the demands of full-time college; supporting myself through a job; getting through my illness; making, producing, and selling my art; taking care of my husband (it doesn't just go one way!); pleasing my instructors by going for internships and "making extra effort"; and everything else that I have to worry about in a day?

At some point, all of these considerations break down and I just have to tell myself to do what I want and worry about everything else later. Inevitably I get judged for this by people who don't know me. In my opinion, that is why people shouldn't pay attention to stereotypes, unless they're prepared to be treated the same way. But of course if they WERE prepared for that, then they would know not to be that way. Someone here said, "When I say something and feel listened to, then I feel like an adult." That is so true. I feel that society would be so much better if people took the time to understand those different from them. But of course, that's been said a million times, and it hasn't made a difference. ;)

9:07 PM  
Blogger me said...

I think of adulthood in terms of maturity. Maturity is where I see the current young adults failing. Maturity is realizing that you can't have everything you want on a part time job. Maturity is knowing that you should be working towards being financially able to support yourself. Maturity is realizing what a hard earned gift your parents have given you when they send you to college. Current generation thinks college is a time to work on becoming a cool drunk and PARTYING, who cares about grades. Current generation is increasingly giving the responsibility of raising their children to their parents. More grandparents are raising grandchildren than ever. You are kidding yourself if you don't see the problem with the current spoiled generation. Yes and we baby boomers are responsible. We are responsible for doing too much. Way to much. I had to put myself through college and I know that some young people are heavily burdened with student loans. I do believe there should be more grant money for those who want to go and can maintain the GPA. If their overall GPA falls below 2.5 they should lose funding. They should also be required to work a job if they get college grant money. This would discourage people who aren't seriously wanting an education. The US needs to offer US citizens more insentives for those who go into math science and medical fields. I believe we all have been psychologically seduced by big business to become addicted to cell phones, and other conveniences that make life easier. We still have to have the maturity to know when we can't keep up the show or we must work harder. Maybe not one job but God forbid maybe two. It is all about choices, you want to play then you learn to work harder and pay. As far credit card companies preying on kids on campus that should not be allowed. I believe credit card companies should be held responsible for giving credit to individuals without the income.

5:56 PM  

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