The path to adulthood since the end of WWII was short and direct. Today if you tell young people that to be an adult you must be living on your own, earning your own way, have a spouse and a kid and a house--you'll get a look of disbelief. "I'll never be an adult then" is their reply.
Many people, of course, didn't take this short and direct path. There's exceptions to every rule. But, on average, that path was the norm: leave home, get an education or training, get a job, marry, buy a home, have kids--in that order: boom, boom, boom.
I myself didn't follow the norm exactly. I messed around a little longer than most of my friends, some of whom are new grandparents now. I meandered here and there, with no real goal or direction. I dropped out of college the first time, had a string of dead-end jobs, moved in with my boyfriend, moved to another city. As it would turn out, my messing around with this order was a harbinger of things to come. For underneath that fast and orderly path to adulthood were the roilings of change.
Indeed, if we'd been looking, we would have first seen the straight-shot embrace of adulthood begin to unravel as early as the 1980s. A first sign was the number of young adults living at home with their parents for longer. The share of 18-24 year olds living at home had been rising slowly since the 1960s, but it jumped suddenly in the early 1980s--from 48% in 1980 to 54% in 1984 (another deep recession by the way). It hasn't changed that much since then (in fact the share living at home in 2009 was about 53%).
Much of this so-called "failure to launch" is because of the rising demand for education and the longer time it takes to get that education. Many young people, realizing that the factory jobs were disappearing and the steady work was quickly becoming a thing of the past, flocked to higher education. But of course, aspirations are one thing and completing a degree is quite another. Many floundered in school--and still do-- dropping out, starting back to work, figuring out that the job is going nowhere, and returning to school again. All this takes time. In the interim, all those other steps of adulthood get pushed back. And voila, the quick and direct path to adulthood isn't so quick or direct anymore.
At the same time as these events were going on, our ideas about marriage and family were changing dramatically, as were our ideas of how to raise kids, what kind of home we liked, what a "necessity" was (cell phone anyone?). In short, this perfect storm of changing ideas and realities was also changing our idea of what (and when) adulthood is.
The result is that today, if you tell young adults you need to be married to be an adult, or you need to have kids, they'll look at you as if you're from Mars.
To them, adulthood is more subjective. It's more often a feeling, not a thing. Outward markers have lost their influence in defining them as adults in many respects. As one young person said in an interview, "I didn't wake up one day when I was 23 and think, oh I'm an adult now. I still sometimes don't think of myself that way."
One young woman said she realized she was adult when, on a visit home, her dad offered her a beer and they talked politics--grown-up things. Another said she felt adult when she paid her own gas bill. Others feel like an adult in some circumstances and less so in others. One young woman said her sense of being an adult goes in cycles.
"I didn't really feel like an adult when I got married. I was just myself. But moving into our own place, ...and really getting into that routine of what our life was-- paying bills, paying rent, car payments-- that's when I really started to feel like an adult. I felt that way for a few years and then I went backwards a little when I moved home. And then backwards again, going back to being a student."