By Jordan Buie
As seniors prepare for graduation, many worry about their not-too-distant future in the “real world.” However, studies are showing that the latest generation of 20-somethings, or “emerging adults,” are now taking their time to fall into adult responsibilities — five years longer.
If it is difficult to believe young adults are maturing slower than previous generations, just compare the numbers. Forty percent of people in their 20s move back home with their parents at least once and go through an average of seven jobs. Two-thirds spend some time living with a partner outside of marriage, and those choosing marriage are doing so later. In the early 1970s, the median age for marriage was 21 for women and 23 for men; by 2009 these numbers had climbed to 26 years old for women and 28 for men.
Sociologists are starting to notice this is not just a trend, but more of a large-scale transition happening among young people today. The transition to adulthood has traditionally been marked by five milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child.
In 1960, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had passed all five milestones by the time they reached 30. However, the U.S. Census Bureau showed that in 2000, among 30-year-olds, less than half of the women and one-third of the men had reached these milestones. A study done on the same topic in Canada reported the average 30-year-old in 2001 had completed the same number of milestones as a 25-year-old in the early 1970s.
Whereas previous generations felt pushed to complete these milestones as soon as possible, the latest generations view the 20s as a time for soul-searching and possibilities. As life spans increase, young people feel no urgent pressure to have all their ducks in a row by the age of 25. Even the idea that all these goals have to be met right out of college seems to be an anachronism.
Jeffrey Arnett, a psychology professor at Clark (Mass.) University, is the leader of a movement to make the 20s its own life-stage called “emerging adulthood.” He compares the information currently being discovered about young adults to the establishment of “adolescence” a century ago. Just as the creation of adolescence had a major effect on many institutions in society, Arnett said similar developments should accompany the discovery of “emerging adults.”
Arnett said he believes cultural changes, combined with studies that show human brain development continues long after the age of 25, contribute to his case for the development of a life-stage called “emerging adulthood.”
Arnett said the establishment of a new stage in the human lifecycle should not come as a surprise, since much debate exists over when adulthood is actually reached. People can vote and join the military at the age of 18, but they cannot legally drink alcohol until age 21. They can drive at 16, but car rental services will not allow anyone under 25 to rent a car without heavy surcharges. Arnett said these factors represent a long-time ambiguity about the age one reaches adulthood.
Dr. Roman Williams, Union assistant professor of sociology, said although he has not had the chance to dig into Arnett’s research himself, all of the ideas make sense, according to what is happening in the real world. He said a sociologist’s job is to observe society, and there is no doubt large shifts are occurring with regard to the traditional paths people are taking toward meeting the milestones of adulthood.
“Longer life spans are now making young people feel as if they have more time to find their vocation,” Williams said. “Now, there is the mindset that ‘I take my time and examine the different opportunities that are available to me, I have a better chance of finding a job I’m best suited for.’”
Williams also pointed out how these changing mindsets are affecting society as a whole. He said because young people are taking longer to enter the workforce, they are spending less time in it. The result is people are retiring when they still have many healthy years they could spend working, and they are expecting their retirement funding to come from a generation that is not working.
He noted many parents approaching retirement are supporting their children, when they expected the opposite.