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Becoming an adult: Why more adolescents now say ‘Don’t rush me’

Why We Wrote This

Each generation has expectations for the next. But the social stimuli that shape young adults have seldom changed as dramatically as they have for the current crop. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Katie Brownfiel (l.), a student at The College of William and Mary, walks on the Williamsburg, Va., campus. Ms. Brownfiel says she is close to her parents and texts them often. Many young adults are choosing to delay full immersion in what has traditionally been considered "adulthood."

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Getting married? Having children? Buying a house? For many members of iGen or Gen Z, crossing the age-18 line doesn’t trigger aspirations in those directions. It might not even prompt a desire to get a driver’s license – or a job. As they move into a developmental phase called “emerging adulthood,” these young adults are putting off traditional markers of the grown-up world, sometimes holding ambiguous feelings well into their 20s about the very idea of growing up. Some social observers view this apparent slowdown with concern. They see a generation of young people growing up insulated by technology, cocooned, controlled, and ill-prepared for life. But to others the change reflects a reasonable adaptation to a culture that rewards a “slow life” approach, a society markedly different from prior generations. They see youths redefining what it means to transform into and become an adult. Either way, it’s a cultural shift that will have social, economic, and demographic effects for generations to come. “There’s a lot we don’t know,” says David Murphey, who runs the databank at Child Trends, a research center in Bethesda, Md. “It’s a big natural experiment….”

Amy Zhang, age 21, knows her parents would like her to get her driver’s license. They’ve been on her about it for some years now. And while the college senior from Vienna, Va., readily admits that she could get it, she just hasn’t gotten around to it yet, what with coursework and extracurriculars and internships taking up most of her time. 

“I do plan on getting my license,” she says. “I’ve been planning on getting it so long that it’s funny.”

Anyhow, Ms. Zhang says, she has never really needed it. She goes to school at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., where she walks to everything. When she is back home in the suburbs she is happy to get rides from her mom, her older sister, or maybe one of her friends. 

And there is something else, Zhang says. A driver’s license always struck her as a symbol that she was growing up – and not necessarily in a good way. 

“It was a departure from childhood,” she says. “You want to have independence and want to be an adult. But at the same time I didn’t want to leave my childhood behind, or feel that I was leaving my family behind.”

Zhang’s perspective – a near flip from that in the 1980s when acquiring a driver’s license was seen as a marker of freedom so compelling it formed the central plot of many a Brat Pack film – is increasingly common. More than a quarter of teenagers today don’t get their license before graduating high school. For those who do, the reasoning often has to do with “making things easier on Mom,” or “my parents pushed me to get it,” rather than a craving for independence, dating, or adult-free social engagements. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Amy Zhang (c.), a senior at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va, runs an editorial meeting for a student-run art/fashion/photography magazine called Rocket.

Indeed, none of those activities seem to particularly interest the generation dubbed iGen, or Gen Z, in the first place. Compared with prior generations, teens across the demographic spectrum are far less likely to go out without parents, date, or drink alcohol, according to a number of national longitudinal studies. They are also less likely to hold a paying job. After 18, they move into a new, widely acknowledged developmental phase called “emerging adulthood,” putting off traditional markers of the grown-up world such as marriage, children, and home ownership. Meanwhile, many of these young people, like Zhang, continue to hold ambiguous feelings well into their 20s about the very idea of growing up. 

“In the last five years it’s been, you know, ‘gotta go to the DMV, hashtag adulting,’ ” says Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean of students at Stanford University and author of the bestselling book “How to Raise an Adult,” referring to the verb form of “adult” that exploded into social media consciousness around 2015. “What they’re saying is ‘I’m not an adult, but today I had to go to the DMV, which is an adult task.’ ”

Many researchers, educators, and parents view this apparent slowdown with concern. They see a generation of young people growing up cocooned, controlled, and ill-prepared for life. College administrators say increasing numbers of students seem unable to function without their parents. Employers wonder what’s wrong with their young workers. Parents look up and realize their 20-year-old doesn’t know how to do the laundry, and seems uninterested in driving anywhere.

But other academics – and many young people themselves – see something different. To them, the change in youth behavior reflects a reasonable adaptation to a culture and society markedly changed from prior generations. They are not simply growing up more slowly, they argue. Instead, they are redefining what it means to transform into and become an adult – a cultural shift that will have social, economic, and demographic effects for generations to come.

“There’s a lot we don’t know,” says David Murphey, who runs the databank at Child Trends, a nonprofit research center based in Bethesda, Md. “It’s a big natural experiment that’s happening under our noses as we speak.”

***

Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and the author of the book “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood,” started to recognize the breadth of this shift as she pored over some of the country’s largest data sets measuring young Americans’ behavior. 

There are a handful of large national surveys – the Youth Behavior Risk Surveillance System, for instance, run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Monitoring the Future surveys out of the University of Michigan – that have been asking teens the same questions for decades. They are treasure-troves for researchers such as Dr. Twenge who want to analyze and measure large social trends, such as how teenagers spend their time. This was what Twenge was working on when she noticed that teens today were less likely to have a paid job. This wasn’t because they were spending more time on homework, she realized. Eighth- and 10th-graders actually spend about the same time on homework as they did in the 1990s, according to national surveys. While there were many possible economic and social explanations for this particular change, it also seemed to fit with a number of other trends Twenge was noticing: a decline in sexual activity, less time spent physically apart from parents, that driver’s license data.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Annalie Gilbert Keith reads in her room at home, in Deerfield, Mass.

“It’s hard to pinpoint, but at some point I realized there’s a pattern here in adult activities – things that adults do that children don’t,” Twenge recalls. “Adolescents aren’t doing them as much.”

She wanted to understand why. 

One explanation was that children were actually growing up at a slower rate – that today’s 18-year-olds behaved similarly to the 16-year-olds of a generation or two ago. 

Although contrary to the popular view that adolescents today grow up more quickly, this theory started to gather momentum among psychologists. After all, a number of academics suggested, there is much in today’s American society that rewards a “slow life strategy.” Numerous studies show that more years of education lead to increased financial prosperity, waiting to get married leads to lower divorce rates, and delayed childbearing correlates not only with better educational outcomes for children but to increased happiness for mothers.

It was only natural, they argued, that people would start to grow up “slower.”

But Twenge suspected there was something more impacting behavior. She noticed a few other dramatic trends, including a sharp rise in teen anxiety and suicidal thoughts in the early 2010s. 

She wondered: If teens weren’t going out with their friends or sneaking off to parties without adults, if they weren’t doing more homework or going to jobs, what were they doing with their time, and why were they seemingly so unhappy?  

The explanation, she believed, was with a familiar culprit: technology.  

The iPhone was released in 2007, the first iPad in 2010. Since then, the percentage of young people on these devices, and others like them, has skyrocketed. By 2017, more than three-quarters of all American teens owned an iPhone, according to a national market report by the investment firm PiperJaffray. The Pew Research Center found this year that 45 percent of American teens say they are online “almost constantly.” The group Common Sense Media estimated that in 2015 teens spent nine hours a day in cyberspace.  

What this meant, Twenge says, was that while parents focused increasingly on children’s physical safety, young people began to replace in-person encounters with virtual connections from their bedrooms. That meant teens were less likely to face threatening situations, but more likely to lose sleep (directly connected to technology) and get sucked into the sort of online interactions that cause even adults stress (many studies show unhappiness rates increasing with social media use). Children were also not as likely to practice the sort of independent decisionmaking widely considered crucial for development. 

“Like any cultural change there are trade-offs,” she says. “There are some huge advantages. Fewer [teens] are drinking, fewer are having sex. Parents are thrilled about that. The potential downside is that they get to college, they get to the workplace, and they just don’t have the experience of independence. I get college administrators saying they are seeing more students who can’t make the most basic decision without texting their parents.”

***

This was what Ms. Lythcott-Haims saw during her time as dean at Stanford. But she suspected the cause was less about technology and more about parenting.  

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Palmer Foran (c.), a science major, rehearses with a student-run singing group. The group, called Schola Cantorum, performs Gregorian chants, Baroque and Renaissance music.

When she first got to the university in the late 1990s, she says, before the iPhone had been invented, she and her colleagues noticed that a small but vocal handful of parents seemed to be unusually involved in the lives of their college-aged children. There was the mom registering her son for classes, the dad arguing with professors about grades, the parents jumping into their child’s conflicts with a new roommate. 

“We thought they were so oddly behaved,” she recalls. “It was like, ‘What’s wrong with these parents?’ ”

But by the time she left the university in 2012, this sort of involvement was common. 

“I’d say it was 30 to 40 percent of parents,” Lythcott-Haims says. 

At first, she thought these parents were holding on too tightly to their children because they couldn’t deal with an empty nest. But then she started looking around at the way parents were interacting with their children at younger ages – monitoring “play dates” (a term that barely existed a generation ago), checking homework, supervising sports practices and bike rides. 

“I realized, no, they’ve been holding on too tightly since birth,” she says. “From play to playgrounds to malls and parks and sidewalks and homework, parents were now hovering. With the best of intentions, they were there. Childhood shifted. It used to be the realm of children. Children played with each other. Children biked to school. Now parents began to be there, always hovering within ear shot.”

This observation fits with what Jessica Dym Bartlett, Child Trends’s deputy program director in early childhood development and child welfare, says is relatively new research showing a price of privilege. Anxiety increases in high-expectation environments with ambitious parents, particularly those who don’t spend much time with their children, whether because of work, their children’s packed schedules, or other reasons. These parents spend money and effort curating their children’s experiences to best fit college application profiles, but they don’t give kids space to fail or even get hurt.  

“There is research around resilience that shows you need some exposure to adversity,” Ms. Bartlett says. “You need to develop these coping skills ... [otherwise] they will be overwhelmed.”

Audrey Cummings, a mother of two teens and two 20-somethings living south of Boston, says that she and her husband talk about this regularly. In her town, she sees many adolescents whose schedules are packed with sports practices and other extracurriculars, but who don’t do chores at home and don’t work.

Her 18-year-old son, for instance, says other high school students are incredulous that he and his siblings have to cover their own social spending from money earned from babysitting or refereeing local soccer games. The other students simply take their parents’ credit cards. Meanwhile, her 20-year-old son, who is in college, is one of the few students in his dorm who has ever done his own laundry.

“I wonder if we make life a little too comfortable for these kids growing up,” she says. “I do think that we get kids used to a lifestyle that they certainly can’t sustain if they are out on their own. I don’t know if it’s a parental thing – we’re trying to prove something ourselves. But I don’t think as a generation we’re doing them any favors by all of this.” 

***

Katie Brownfiel, a 20-year-old student at the College of William & Mary from Long Island, N.Y., texts her mom every day. Often she does it while walking between classes, or heading to a slew of extracurricular activities, such as teaching English as a foreign language to local community members, giving tours to prospective students, or tutoring children through Circle K International, the collegiate version of the Kiwanis club. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Katie Brownfiel, 20, says she texts her mom every day, and considers herself ‘super close with her family.’

“I’m really super close with my family,” she says. “I considered them to be my best friends growing up. I call my mom multiple times a day.”

Her classmate, 21-year-old Palmer Foran from Ellicott City, Md., also texts his mother regularly. So does Annalie Gilbert Keith, 18, who texts and FaceTimes her mother from Smith College, only half an hour away from home in Deerfield, Mass. 

But none of the students see this as any sort of crippling dependence. To them, this regular contact with parents, while perhaps surprising to those whose collegiate experience involved collect calls on a common-room landline, is the mature practice of keeping in touch with the people they love. And while all have opinions about mobile technology – and all feel somewhat ambiguous about social media – they appreciate the smartphone as a tool for maintaining connections in a way that lets them simultaneously develop independent lives. 

“I don’t really have the time to make a phone call every day; I also don’t really want to,” says Mr. Foran, who describes his relationship with his parents as “very close.” “I like some degree of separation. I don’t want to feel like a child.”

Ms. Gilbert Keith says there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly “grown up” about ignoring relationships that are important. 

For Gilbert Keith’s mother, Jane Gilbert Keith, this is all both beautiful and somewhat worrying. Jane knows she raised Annalie with a very different parenting style than she experienced in the 1960s, when her own mother would send her outdoors and tell her to be back for supper. She has been more involved and far more cautious in allowing physical independence.

“We live in a fear culture, and I am not immune to it,” she says. 

But she has always been conscious of “getting out of [Annalie’s] way,” as she puts it, and encouraging her daughter to grow into her own person. This is how they have built the close, solid, and respectful relationship they have, she says.

And so she can’t help but be of two minds about those texts. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Annalie Gilbert Keith makes egg salad sandwiches with her mom, Jane, at their home, in Deerfield, Mass. Annalie, a freshman at Smith College, often comes home on weekends.

“Do I love getting texted by my daughter every day? Absolutely,” she says. But at the same time, she worries that parents are far too accessible. “The assumption that everyone is available all the time? I’m not sure that’s a good thing. It would certainly make me anxious.”

***

As researchers studied teensand emerging adults, a few of them started to notice something more fundamental – a change in the very definition of adulthood itself. For many young people today, becoming an adult has less to do with external markers – the house, the marriage, the job – than with how they feel.

“What I’ve found from the beginning ... is that people now view adulthood as things they mark internally,” says Jeffrey Arnett, a psychology professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “It’s the acceptance of oneself, making independent decisions, financial independence. It’s all individualistic.”

This was clear to writer Kelly Williams Brown, as well, and became one of the motivators for writing her “Adulting” blog, and later the bestselling book “Adulting: How to Become a Grown-Up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps.”

Mostly all those she called for her research, she says, said they didn’t feel like an adult, no matter what their age. “I would call people and tell them that I’m writing about being an adult, and almost down to a person, people would say, ‘I don’t know why you want to talk to me,’ ” she says. 

So she decided to focus on actions. But not those measured by statistics. She decided to write about those small, daily habits that, as she puts it, “hopefully make you a functional happy being.”

“Here is what I’m trying to tell you,” she writes in the introduction of her book. “Adult isn’t a noun, it’s a verb. It’s the act of making correctly those small decisions that fill our day. It’s one that you can practice, and that can be done in concrete steps. And if you slip up and have Diet Coke for breakfast, no one busts in and snatches away your Adult card.”

These individual actions can add up to a generation that is different. Dr. Arnett, who coined the term “emerging adulthood” nearly two decades ago to describe the developmental phase from late teenage years to the late 20s, says young people aren’t necessarily trying to avoid adulthood. 

“They are not saying they don’t want to become adults, they are saying that they want to make those decisions about work, education, parenthood, and so on with care, and when they are ready,” he says.

 Members of this age group today tend to be more politically active and to engage in volunteer work, like Ms. Brownfiel, than prior generations.

They are also more likely to be connected globally, like Zhang, who may not have a driver’s license, but who has studied abroad in Italy and Britain, and has lived and worked in New York City. Relationships with parents tend to be closer and less hierarchical than in earlier generations. And in a world that can feel increasingly unpredictable, many say they put a premium on relationships and spaces that bring security and comfort.

Gilbert Keith, for instance, comes home from college regularly on weekends. Her father was raised in the same house where she grew up, and it is a place where she can reflect, she says. “It gives me a strong sense of being rooted.” 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Amy Zhang, a senior at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., so far hasn’t gotten around to getting her driver’s license.

Indeed, Ms. Brown believes that many of the decisions young people make today are less about adulthood than about the world they are inheriting.

“I was in high school when 9/11 happened,” she says. “That was a huge shift in perspective in America. We entered the workforce as the Great Recession was happening, or in the aftermath of that. So many of the institutions that have traditionally helped guide people as they make that transition into adulthood are not present anymore.” 

In other words, young people, often graduating with massive student loan debt, do not assume that they will have a long-term stable career at any one company, or necessarily a long-term, stable relationship with any one partner. They don’t expect a “forever” home. The global and political landscapes seem rocky, too. 

Yet, in the end, the forces buffeting this generation may not be all that unusual. As Mr. Murphey of Child Trends puts it: “I think in their lives they’ve seen both huge opportunities for change and evidence of huge opportunities for evil to take root. But what generation hasn’t?” 

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