Hundreds, if not thousands of adolescents and young adults from the North Shore communities of Highland Park, Lake Forest, Glencoe, Northfield, Winnetka, Glenview, Wilmette and Northbrook continue to require significant parental support well into traditional adulthood ages of 20 to 30. This support often takes the form of all or almost all ecomonic needs including apartments, cars and spending money.
Sociologists traditionally define the “transition to adulthood” as 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, by the time they reached 30, passed all five milestones. Among 30-year-olds in 2000, according to data from the United States Census Bureau, fewer than half of the women and one-third of the men had done so. A Canadian study reported that a typical 30-year-old in 2001 had completed the same number of milestones as a 25-year-old in the early ’70s.
Our urge to protect teenagers from real life – because we don’t think they’re ready yet – has tragically backfired. By insulating them from adult-like work, adult social relationships, and adult consequences, we have only delayed their development. We have made it harder for them to grow up. Maybe even made it impossible to grow up on time.
Basically, we long ago decided that teens ought to be in school, not in the labor force. Education was their future. But the structure of schools is endlessly repetitive. From a Martian’s perspective, high schools look virtually the same as sixth grade. There’s no recognition, in the structure of school, that these are very different people with different capabilities. Strapped to desks for 13+ years, school becomes both incredibly monotonous, artificial, and cookie-cutter.
We place kids in schools together with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of other kids typically from similar economic and cultural backgrounds. We group them all within a year or so of one another in age. We equip them with similar gadgets, expose them to the same TV shows, lessons, and sports. We ask them all to take almost the exact same courses and do the exact same work and be graded relative to one another. We give them only a handful of ways in which they can meaningfully demonstrate their competencies. And then we’re surprised they have some difficulty establishing a sense of their own individuality.
And we wonder why it’s taking so long for them to mature. The old explanation used to be they needed time for the wave of raging hormones to dissipate (more on this tomorrow). The newer explanation is that their brains simply aren’t developed yet: their prefrontal cortex hasn’t converted from gray matter to white matter, their amygdalas have a surfeit of oxytocin receptors, and their reward centers have a paucity of dopamine receptors. Few can say for sure yet how these anatomical features actually interact and create modern teenagers, but the gist of it is quite simple – until their brains are finished, they’re not ready for real life.
I hear often from parents whose teenagers are disengaged or withdrawn. They have a hard time caring what other kids think, or what society expects of them. They’re having a hard time playing the game of resume-building for a far-off future.
They’re called boomerang children, their m.o. is called failure to launch, and they’re everywhere. We all know them. Many of us have raised them. Their behavior predates the economic crisis, but I believe they’ve grown in number as the job outlook has become increasingly bleak. Emerging adults choose from a wide variety of lifestyle options, all of which are carefully designed to postpone the onset of adulthood. Society has made it easy for them to do this. Entry level jobs are scarce. The wide acceptance of premarital sex has made postponement of marriage a welcome option, as has birth control and cohabitation. Assisted reproductive technology makes it possible to delay parenthood well into one’s thirties or even forties.
The impact of emerging adulthood on a society that has been built upon the orderly progression of one generation growing up, getting jobs, starting families, and retiring on pensions supported by the next generation of adults is yet to be felt. What happens when that cycle is thrown out of whack?
A century ago psychologists made a strong case for the creation of a new stage of human development which we now take for granted. Acceptance of adolescence as a distinct phase of development required accommodation by the government, our education system, social services, and the law. Sweeping change is likely to occur should emerging adulthood gain the same level of acceptance. Is emerging adulthood going to be a breakthrough discovery in the field of psychology or is it just a fancy term for self-indulgence?
JEFFREY ARNETT, a psychology professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., is leading the movement to view the 20s as a distinct life stage, which he calls “emerging adulthood.” He says what is happening now is analogous to what happened a century ago, when social and economic changes helped create adolescence — a stage we take for granted but one that had to be recognized by psychologists, accepted by society and accommodated by institutions that served the young. Similar changes at the turn of the 21st century have laid the groundwork for another new stage, Arnett says, between the age of 18 and the late 20s.
Among the cultural changes he points to that have led to “emerging adulthood” are the need for more education to survive in an information-based economy; fewer entry-level jobs even after all that schooling; young people feeling less rush to marry because of the general acceptance of premarital sex, cohabitation and birth control; and young women feeling less rush to have babies given their wide range of career options and their access to assisted reproductive technology if they delay pregnancy beyond their most fertile years.
If society decides to protect these young people or treat them differently from fully grown adults, how can we do this without becoming all the things that grown children resist — controlling, moralizing, paternalistic? Young people spend their lives lumped into age-related clusters — that’s the basis of K-12 schooling — but as they move through their 20s, they diverge. Some 25-year-olds are married homeowners with good jobs and a couple of kids; others are still living with their parents and working at transient jobs, or not working at all. Does that mean we extend some of the protections and special status of adolescence to all people in their 20s? To some of them? Which ones? Decisions like this matter, because failing to protect and support vulnerable young people can lead them down the wrong path at a critical moment, the one that can determine all subsequent paths. But overprotecting and oversupporting them can sometimes make matters worse, turning the “changing timetable of adulthood” into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The more profound question behind the scholarly intrigue is the one that really captivates parents: whether the prolongation of this unsettled time of life is a good thing or a bad thing. With life spans stretching into the ninth decade, is it better for young people to experiment in their 20s before making choices they’ll have to live with for more than half a century? Or is adulthood now so malleable, with marriage and employment options constantly being reassessed, that young people would be better off just getting started on something, or else they’ll never catch up, consigned to remain always a few steps behind the early bloomers? Is emerging adulthood a rich and varied period for self-discovery, as Arnett says it is? Or is it just another term for self-indulgence?
DURING THE PERIOD he calls emerging adulthood, Arnett says that young men and women are more self-focused than at any other time of life, less certain about the future and yet also more optimistic, no matter what their economic background. This is where the “sense of possibilities” comes in, he says; they have not yet tempered their idealistic visions of what awaits. “The dreary, dead-end jobs, the bitter divorces, the disappointing and disrespectful children . . . none of them imagine that this is what the future holds for them,” he wrote. Ask them if they agree with the statement “I am very sure that someday I will get to where I want to be in life,” and 96 percent of them will say yes. But despite elements that are exciting, even exhilarating, about being this age, there is a downside, too: dread, frustration, uncertainty, a sense of not quite understanding the rules of the game. More than positive or negative feelings, what Arnett heard most often was ambivalence — beginning with his finding that 60 percent of his subjects told him they felt like both grown-ups and not-quite-grown-ups.
Cultural expectations might also reinforce the delay. The “changing timetable for adulthood” has, in many ways, become internalized by 20-somethings and their parents alike. Today young people don’t expect to marry until their late 20s, don’t expect to start a family until their 30s, don’t expect to be on track for a rewarding career until much later than their parents were. So they make decisions about their futures that reflect this wider time horizon. Many of them would not be ready to take on the trappings of adulthood any earlier even if the opportunity arose; they haven’t braced themselves for it.
Nor do parents expect their children to grow up right away — and they might not even want them to. Parents might regret having themselves jumped into marriage or a career and hope for more considered choices for their children. Or they might want to hold on to a reassuring connection with their children as the kids leave home.
If they were “helicopter parents” — a term that describes heavily invested parents who hover over their children, swooping down to take charge and solve problems at a moment’s notice — they might keep hovering and problem-solving long past the time when their children should be solving problems on their own. This might, in a strange way, be part of what keeps their grown children in the limbo between adolescence and adulthood. It can be hard sometimes to tease out to what extent a child doesn’t quite want to grow up and to what extent a parent doesn’t quite want to let go.
Whatever it’s called, the delayed transition has been observed for years. But it can be in fullest flower only when the young person has some other, nontraditional means of support — which would seem to make the delay something of a luxury item. That’s the impression you get reading Arnett’s case histories in his books and articles, or the essays in “20 Something Manifesto,” an anthology edited by a Los Angeles writer named Christine Hassler. “It’s somewhat terrifying,” writes a 25-year-old named Jennifer, “to think about all the things I’m supposed to be doing in order to ‘get somewhere’ successful: ‘Follow your passions, live your dreams, take risks, network with the right people, find mentors, be financially responsible, volunteer, work, think about or go to grad school, fall in love and maintain personal well-being, mental health and nutrition.’ When is there time to just be and enjoy?” Adds a 24-year-old from Virginia: “There is pressure to make decisions that will form the foundation for the rest of your life in your 20s. It’s almost as if having a range of limited options would be easier.”
This dependence on Mom and Dad also means that during the 20s the rift between rich and poor becomes entrenched. According to data gathered by the Network on Transitions to Adulthood, a research consortium supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, American parents give an average of 10 percent of their income to their 18- to 21-year-old children. This percentage is basically the same no matter the family’s total income, meaning that upper-class kids tend to get more than working-class ones. And wealthier kids have other, less obvious, advantages. When they go to four-year colleges or universities, they get supervised dormitory housing, health care and alumni networks not available at community colleges. And they often get a leg up on their careers by using parents’ contacts to help land an entry-level job — or by using parents as a financial backup when they want to take an interesting internship that doesn’t pay.
“You get on a pathway, and pathways have momentum,” says Jennifer Lynn Tanner of Rutgers. “In emerging adulthood, if you spend this time exploring and you get yourself on a pathway that really fits you, then there’s going to be this snowball effect of finding the right fit, the right partner, the right job, the right place to live. The less you have at first, the less you’re going to get this positive effect compounded over time. You’re not going to have the same acceleration.”
Even Arnett admits that not every young person goes through a period of “emerging adulthood.” It’s rare in the developing world, he says, where people have to grow up fast, and it’s often skipped in the industrialized world by the people who marry early, by teenage mothers forced to grow up, by young men or women who go straight from high school to whatever job is available without a chance to dabble until they find the perfect fit. Indeed, the majority of humankind would seem to not go through it at all. The fact that emerging adulthood is not universal is one of the strongest arguments against Arnett’s claim that it is a new developmental stage. If emerging adulthood is so important, why is it even possible to skip it?
The Network on Transitions to Adulthood has been issuing reports about young people since it was formed in 1999 and often ends up recommending more support for 20-somethings. But more of what, exactly? There aren’t institutions set up to serve people in this specific age range; social services from a developmental perspective tend to disappear after adolescence. But it’s possible to envision some that might address the restlessness and mobility that Arnett says are typical at this stage and that might make the experimentation of “emerging adulthood” available to more young people.
How about expanding programs like City Year, in which 17- to 24-year-olds from diverse backgrounds spend a year mentoring inner-city children in exchange for a stipend, health insurance, child care, cellphone service and a $5,350 education award? Or a federal program in which a government-sponsored savings account is created for every newborn, to be cashed in at age 21 to support a year’s worth of travel, education or volunteer work — a version of the “baby bonds” program that Hillary Clinton mentioned during her 2008 primary campaign? Maybe we can encourage a kind of socially sanctioned “rumspringa,” the temporary moratorium from social responsibilities some Amish offer their young people to allow them to experiment before settling down. It requires only a bit of ingenuity — as well as some societal forbearance and financial commitment — to think of ways to expand some of the programs that now work so well for the elite, like the Fulbright fellowship or the Peace Corps, to make the chance for temporary service and self-examination available to a wider range of young people. Public service work for organizations like AmeriCorps, Teach for America or the Peace Corps can be a gateway to a variety of careers, including those outside public service.
THE KIND OF SERVICES that might be created if emerging adulthood is accepted as a life stage can be seen with a visit to Yellowbrick, a residential program in Evanston, Ill., that calls itself the only psychiatric treatment facility for emerging adults.
When parents are paying the full cost of Yellowbrick’s comprehensive residential program, which comes to $21,000 a month and is not always covered by insurance. They address it with a concept they call connected autonomy, which they define as knowing when to stand alone and when to accept help.
Patients turn to Yellowbrick with a variety of problems: substance abuse, eating disorders, depression, anxiety or one of the more severe mental illnesses, like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, that tend to appear in the late teens or early 20s. The demands of imminent independence can worsen mental-health problems or can create new ones for people who have managed up to that point to perform all the expected roles — son or daughter, boyfriend or girlfriend, student, teammate, friend — but get lost when schooling ends and expected roles disappear. That’s what happened to one patient who had done well at a top Ivy League college until the last class of the last semester of his last year, when he finished his final paper and could not bring himself to turn it in.
The Yellowbrick philosophy is that young people must meet these challenges without coddling or rescue. Up to 16 patients at a time are housed in the Yellowbrick residence, a four-story apartment building. They live in the apartments — which are large, sunny and lavishly furnished — in groups of three or four, with staff members always on hand to teach the basics of shopping, cooking, cleaning, scheduling, making commitments and showing up.
For most parents the idea of $21,000 per month is not remotely in the ball park as far as affordability. Many are already trying to create the development on their own through a more creative combination of monetary support for living, etc. For the smarter parents, the idea of a consultant makes a great deal of sense and reduces costs over time. Call us today to see how we can help you get your emerging adult on the road to independence.