So you're all grown up...congratulations, you're a dependent! 

Children and adolescents are legally tied to parents; but emerging adults are not, beginning at age 18. This is the case unless, however, you are referring to the provision of the Affordable Care Act that extends, through age 25, the years a "dependent" can remain on the employer-based health care plan of his or her parent.  

The primary objective of allowing "dependents" to stay on their parent's health care plan is to reduce the burden of being uninsured which hits this age group hard. Not having health insurance is common during emerging adulthood:

  • about 30% of 19 to 29 year-olds are uninsured; 
  • approximately 45% were uninsured at least part of the year in 2009; 
  • 18-29 year-olds account for 1 in 5 of all uninsured in the US; and 
  • emerging adults are 3x more likely to be uninsured compared to children 

Allowing dependents to remain on parents' employer-sponsored health care plans is expected to provide access to health care coverage to 1.2 million 18 to 25 year-olds. 

While some see this new legislation as a triumph others see it as less than. Some analysts focus on the fact that the new legislation primarily applies to only about 9% of the 13.7 million uninsured 18 to 29 year-olds and that this group is comprised primarily of college graduates who "age out" of college health plans. Does the legislation then advantage an emerging adult subgroup already advantaged compared to their peers who did not attend college? Other concerns center around the real-world implementation of the legislation. For example, while the law first goes into effect September 2010, emerging adults who graduated in May and missed open-enrollment at (their parent's) work will have to wait until open enrollment in 2011, what are emerging adults to do?

Looking through the message boards and blogs serving as forums for discussing the implications of this legislation, the discourse often comes to an argument between two sides. Some respondents wonder: 'why are we indulging these adults--they should get out there and work." Others are surprised, 'why wouldn't we help our children get on their feet?'

[NOTE: the vast majority of those commenting are parents of emerging adult children.] 

What I take from these comments is that this insurance issue is tapping into the very matter that is coming between parents and their twentysomethings on a daily basis--should we consider emerging adults children or adults?

The government has taken a stand on the issue. The Affordable Care Act legislation defines a "dependent" as one who is the son or daughter of an employee. No stipulations exclude based on whether the son or daughter is a full-time student, married, financially dependent on the parent, or living at home.

But, what are the ramifications of labeling legal adults--"dependents?"

It can be argued that declaring 18 to 25 year-olds "dependents" is one small step toward reducing uninsurance, one giant leap toward perpetuating dependence. Feeling adult is tied to gaining responsibility for self, establishing a set of one's own beliefs and values separate from those of one's parents, and becoming financially independent. Thus, this legislation may complicate the psychological transition to adulthood by telling emerging adults 'here you can have insurance, but you have to acknowledge that we still have control over you--you are a dependent.'

Being labeled a "dependent" may not feel good to emerging adults. Alternatively, it may feel right; given that 80% of college graduates move back home after graduation, are emerging adults best understood as dependents? What issues does "being a dependent" raise for emerging adults? Their parents? Society?

The government, instituting the policy based on their definition of "dependent" has already made a powerful statement about how we are going to understand 18 to 25 year-olds, regardless of whether or not they are working or not working; married or not married; parents or not parents--they are dependents. So, congratulations graduates, if you don't qualify for your own health insurance and you want it, we'll call you 'dependent" and you'll you'll be our "dependent" and you'll be grateful (or no health insurance for you!). 

About the Author

Jennifer L. Tanner

Jennifer L. Tanner, Ph.D., is an applied developmental psychologist at Rutgers University.

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