Emerging adulthood: why it takes so long to grow up today

You are sitting at the dinner table for Thanksgiving and everyone is sharing stories about their children. Your aunt, the gossipy one with the plastic smile, mentions how her daughter just put a down payment on a new home shortly after landing a big shot job at a private firm.

You shift nervously in your seat and consider going to the restroom until the subject changes, but it’s too late. The family gaze is already upon you and even though nothing is said aloud, you still hear their questions—their judgment.

What about you? They prod. When are you moving out? When are you getting a career? When are you getting married? When, for the love of God, are you getting your life together?

It’s enough to make you sick, but you swallow it all anyway. You pretend it doesn’t bother you. You smile. You pass the mashed potatoes. And you eat that damn turkey.

If this scenario doesn’t sound familiar, then you’re lucky. Because this is what it’s like to be a young adult in the 21st century. And despite popular belief, it’s not because our youth are lazy. According to one developmental psychologist, the real cause has roots tracing back to the ‘60s and ‘70s, and more recent events may be making things worse.

The Four Historical Influences That Prolonged Young Adulthood

While all the other boomers were wondering why millennials were so unmotivated, developmental psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett was asking a different question: Why does it take so long to grow up today? The answer he found was a cultural one. He identified four key influences during the ‘60s and ‘70s that led to a new period of prolonged youth he coined “emerging adulthood”.

1: The Technology Revolution

The technological shift during the ‘60s and ‘70s changed the national economy. Gone were the days when you could graduate high school and find a manufacturing job at a steel or car factory that would sustain you and your family. All those jobs were shipped overseas. And they were replaced with careers in technology, information and services instead, all of which required higher education. As a result, the time period between leaving high school and entering adulthood was extended, because young adults now had to spend four to six years in university just to have a chance at finding a good job.

2: The Sexual Revolution

If you think of the ‘60s and ‘70s, you’ll probably picture a particularly flowery persona with long hair and bright clothes. Or perhaps they are wearing nothing at all because this time period revolutionized how people viewed love, relationships and especially sex. According to Arnett, contraception, porn, homosexuality and premarital sex became more normalized, not to mention the birth-control pill, which became an instant hit after its release in the early-’60s. All of this created a culture that no longer had marriage and children at the forefront. Sex and relationships became less about commitment and became more about experimentation. So instead of settling down, young adults began to spend more time exploring their sexuality in the years following adolescence.

3: The Women’s Movement

The shift in gender roles also shifted the young adult landscape. In 1963, Harvard awarded its first degrees to a woman, and in 1964 the Civil Rights Act banned discrimination on the basis of sex. Thus, the archaic status quo that expected women to be homemakers or receptionists started to quickly crumble. This not only helped level the playing field between sexes, but it also opened women’s minds to future possibilities. So instead of searching for a husband and trying to start a family, young women began to spend their youth getting a higher education and working on their careers, once again prolonging the time leading up to adulthood.

4: The Youth Movement

The final historical influence that has extended young adulthood, according to Arnett, is the shift in ideas about age itself. During the ‘60s and ‘70s, people started to idolize youth and began to view adulthood with more dread. We know these sentiments are still alive and well today because we can see it in pop culture and in phrases that have gained favor the last couple of decades, such as “Thirty is the new twenty” and “You only live once” (YOLO), which exploded in popularity back in 2012. This modern, youth-obsessed culture has created an environment in which young adults are more inclined to cling to their youth and prolong the inevitable entrance into adulthood as long as possible.

Recent Influences Prolonging Young Adulthood

While Arnett covered the four big ones, the factors extending young adulthood didn’t end in the ‘70s. The economical strain from the Great Recession resulted in students spending even more time in university and getting paid less while doing it.

The skyrocketing cost of university tuition, which saw a 106% increase in net tuition between 1987 and 2010, didn’t help things either. It’s no wonder that the average debt accrued after university last year was around $30,000.

Slap a housing crisis on top of all that, and you have a recipe for an economically handicapped young adult who can barely afford rent, let alone markers of adulthood such as home-ownership and starting a family.

And then of course there was the pandemic, which has increased unemployment for 20- to 24-year-olds to 1.5 times the national rate and forced more than half of all young adults to live with their parents, a number that has not been seen since the Great Depression.

Is this Good or Bad for Young Adults?

Psychology professor Josh Muller at College of the Sequoias has done research on emerging adulthood and teaches his students on the subject. According to him, this extended stage of young adulthood is a mixed bag.

On the one hand, delaying entrance into adulthood gives young adults “more time to explore and figure things out.” It helps them become better employees, better partners and parents, because they have more time to mature and gain experience before taking on adult ventures.

The downside, according to Muller, is that an extended young adulthood sometimes means a lowering of responsibility during a time that is notorious for risky behaviors. A nasty mix that may lead to irreparable mistakes that can haunt young adults forever.

So what’s the solution?

From the parent’s perspective, Muller recommends a similar approach to guiding an adolescent. He believes it’s a “balancing act” of promoting independence versus providing a safety net.

“When you have a 13-year-old,” Muller explained. “You try to promote a little independence and a huge safety net. For emerging adults, it should be a lot of independence and a little bit of a safety net.”

But Muller also understands that lofty goals such as acquiring a career, buying a home and getting married can be intimidating prospects for young adults. So, he encourages them to take one thing at a time, to break up the big goals into a series of baby ones.

“If you want to be prosperous and be successful,” Muller said. “You have to create a cycle of mini-achievements. If you build a pattern of achievement, then the sky is the limit.”

But most importantly, Muller wants young adults to know that they are not alone and that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

“We’re all working on ourselves,” he said. “I think I was about 35 when I was finally comfortable in my own skin. … It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It gets better over time.”

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