May 31, 2010
Taking longer to grow up?
A friend sent me an article last weekend from the Chicago Tribune, entitled “Transition to Adulthood Takes Longer than Ever,” filled with now-familiar tales of the impact of the Great Recession on the career goals and financial independence of young adults: low-wage service sector jobs, college graduates returning to live with parents, and career and further-education plans on indefinite hold. According to the MacArthur Research Network, far fewer young adults in the year 2009 had reached five common rites of passage, known as “traditional markers of maturity,” than in 1960. The five markers are: living independently, completion of schooling, full-time employment, marriage, and children.
The problem is, I think the article (and a great many like it), as well as popular imagination, falsely conflates two different phenomenon—that of extended childhood and adolescence, and that of increasing economic barriers to specific, material, culturally desired behaviors. Both may very well be real, and absolutely are related, but I wonder if there aren’t also real and negative consequences to young adults of our common, but false, conflation of emotional maturity—or real adulthood—with economic enfranchisement. I don’t necessarily think there’s a problem with using the incidence of these milestones to help track broader economic or lifestyle trends, but the way in which these metrics being used more colloquially to judge adulthood is deceptive and superficial.
Obviously, the five markers are only easily-measurable stand-ins for real characteristics of adulthood, and by using the former to talk about the latter, we risk mistaking them for each other.
The only one I can easily agree with, for the most part, is the first. I think it’s extremely difficult to know yourself fully as a self-sufficient person, and your capabilities, if you haven’t lived away from your parents–and college dorm living doesn’t count. (And even then, other cultures don’t judge this to be the case; it’s common around the world for three or more generations to share a household continuously.) The others have fairly gaping logical holes when it comes to their usefulness as representations of actual maturity. Haven’t plenty of woefully immature and ill-prepared people graduated from high school and college? Gotten full-time jobs? Gotten married too young to partners they didn’t know well enough? Had children when they were in no emotional or financial state to support them very well?
Isn’t it a more mature position to put off marriage and children if you know you’re too young or not financially secure?
Additionally, the traditional five criteria of maturity exclude certain groups of people almost entirely from economic consideration as full adults. Arts professionals and freelancers, for instance, may be very unlikely to have a single, stable, full-time job, or consistent full-time employment. For instance, though I started working at 15, have often worked 80-hour weeks, held multiple jobs at once, and been consistently financially self-sufficient since graduation from college…I’ve never held a full-time job. I probably never will.
Same-sex marriage is still illegal in 45 states. According to the traditional markers of maturity, gay and lesbian citizens are definitionally excluded from full adulthood merely by virtue of sexual orientation, regardless of their desire to marry or participation in long-term committed relationships. Six states have outlawed or severely restricted gays, lesbians, and same-sex partners from adopting or fostering children, and regardless of state law, same-sex couples face far higher logistical hurdles even to have biological children (and clearly are drastically less likely to experience unplanned pregnancies—the cause of 50% of all children). So on the count of having children, again, LGBT citizens are far less likely to be counted as full adults than their straight counterparts.
The common usage of the markers of maturity designates one particular model of work and family life as mature or adult–completion of college, obtaining a full-time job, heterosexual marriage and children–and effectively discounts different life choices which equally mature people might make as valid models of adulthood: lifelong singlehood, whether chosen or not; childlessness, whether chosen or not; long-term partnership without marriage; declining high school or college attendance if it doesn’t fit your goals in life; creative or independent work which would never be described as a full-time “job;” living in a multi-generational household if that would be the best thing for your family.
When we’re talking about whether young people are taking longer to grow up, I think we need to talk about the real characteristics of adulthood that the “traditional markers of maturity” are only arbitrary representations of. Goal-orientation and completion rather than school completion. Dedication to an occupation or meaningful work rather than full-time job. Sustenance of long-term, intimate relationships (including with lifelong friends) rather than marriage; reliability rather than simply having had children, which, by itself, in no way demonstrates the skills which we wish it did. And also the traits necessary for a rich and independent life, especially during financially difficult times, which aren’t explicitly represented by the five markers at all: good judgment, self-direction, resilience, creativity and problem-solving, adaptability and ability to adjust expectations.
I think it is true that people are taking longer to grow up; I’ve seen people only a few years younger than I am, almost completely unable to function confidently in the world: to go to the library to apply for a library card or register to vote or pick up tax forms, to conduct their own financial affairs, to cook, to become familiar with their neighborhood and find their way around, to make decisions or act independently of others’ opinions or approval. But it’s not for lack of a residence, college degree, job, or marriage; it’s some kind of basic lack of engagement and confidence with the world, of which I’m not sure of the origin.
I fear that if what we’re telling young adults is that being an adult is contingent on these particular markers, and they give every indication of remaining out of financial reach for the foreseeable future, it’s a discouragement from thinking of themselves—and behaving—as real adults. There’s an implication that you haven’t accomplished the right things if you haven’t accomplished these things, and that’s a discouragement for young adults to think confidently and flexibly of their real options and choices, and an encouragement of superficiality. That’s the opposite of what we should want to accomplish.
Further, there are troubling implications for civil rights. Many of our rights as citizens are conferred or denied on the basis of age as a proxy for presumed maturity: not just the commonly celebrated vices of ability to buy alcohol and tobacco, to gamble, visit a strip club or get a tattoo; but obtaining a full driver’s license, voting, running for public office, having the confidentiality of your medical treatment, and your bodily autonomy, guaranteed; military service; ability to sign a binding contract. If it becomes commonly accepted that people who have not attained particular milestones are not actually full adults, then the presumption of their right or ability to participate fully in democratic society could be imperiled.