Six-year-olds are children. Fourteen-year-olds are teenagers. Forty-year-olds are adults. There would likely be little disagreement about any of these claims.
But what about 18, 19, 20, or 21 year olds? Or 25-year-olds, for that matter? What are they?
People in their late teens and twenties – those who are no longer minors but who have not yet taken on full adult responsibilities – have become a unique age group. Many risky behaviors, such as heavy alcohol use, use of illegal drugs, sex with acquaintances or relative strangers, and drunk driving peak during the 18-25 year-old age group. Many people in this age group keep switching college majors, moving into and out of their families’ homes, changing jobs, and moving in and out of relationships.
What is it with these people? Why do they take so many foolish risks, and why won’t they just grow up?
My colleague Jeff Arnett has devoted much of his career to helping us understand this age group. He started by asking young people between 18 and 25 whether they thought of themselves as adults. A few said yes, and a few said no, but most of them said “in some ways yes, and in some ways no.” This was not a casual or blow-off answer. Our society really doesn’t have much of a formal place for people who have finished their secondary schooling but who have not yet settled down into “permanent” adult roles. Indeed, the way our society is configured actually prevents many people in the 18-25 age group from settling down.
For much of the 20th century, there was a fairly standard path from formal schooling into adulthood. Many young people got married shortly after finishing high school, many men took entry-level jobs, and many women became stay-at-home mothers and homemakers. The jobs that young people took after finishing high school were often apprenticeship-type positions or positions working in the mailroom, in a steel mill, on an assembly line, et cetera. Workers who showed promise and dedication could sometimes move up in the company, and many working people stayed with the same company – or in the same line of work – for most or all of their careers. My grandfather, for example, started out in the mailroom of a costume jewelry business and eventually became the CEO.
Starting in the late 1960s and 1970s, things began to change. Many women grew tired of staying home and raising children while their husbands went to work. The steel mills began to close, and machines began to take the place of assembly line workers. Having watched their parents spend their lives in unhappy – or at least unsatisfying – marriages, many young people in the 1970s decided to wait longer to marry and to become parents, and some of those who found themselves in unhappy or unfulfilling marriages got divorced. The pipeline directly from high school into marriage and the workforce was beginning to break down, and young people began to flock to colleges and universities to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to be competitive for the jobs that were available. Especially beginning in the 1980s, college became a time and place to “try out” adult roles, career choices, and relationship preferences. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of Americans attending college full time increased by 430% between 1959 and 2010 – nearly six times the 72% increase in the overall U.S. population during that time.
Further, many young people were delaying marriage until their mid-twenties, and the social taboo against having sex before marriage began to ease. So the two primary issues that once were generally resolved shortly after high school – career and romantic partnership – were being delayed, and young people were expected to make choices in these areas rather than simply “falling into” a job and a marriage. This evolution from the traditional high-school-to-work transition to a more extended transition based on trying out potential choices was based both on individuals’ desire to change traditional gender roles and on the decreasing availability of entry-level jobs. These changes created the life stage that Arnett calls “emerging adulthood” (roughly ages 18-25).
So the reason why young people engage in such risky behavior and live such transitory lives lies in the combination of changing social norms, shifting economic conditions, and advancing technology. A college degree today is worth about as much as a high school degree was worth 40 or 50 years ago – it is the entry point for many professions, and it would be difficult to get a job in many fields without at least a bachelor’s degree. More and more people are enrolling in master’s degree programs, which means more time in school and an even more delayed entry into the workforce. The increased credentials required for many jobs, coupled with a shrinking job market, also mean that many more people will not be able to successfully compete for high-paying and satisfying jobs. More and more young people are moving back in with their parents (or not moving out in the first place) because they cannot find suitable work. More young people than ever are struggling to find their way. Risky behaviors are a form of identity exploration for some emerging adults who are looking to experiment with possible life paths and relationships, but these behaviors are often a mode of escape for young people who are unable to compete in an increasingly difficult and complex world.
At the same time, social norms have moved even further away from anything that my grandparents’ generation would recognize. The majority of births in the United States are now to mothers who are not married. Many couples are living together indefinitely with no plans to marry. Many people view breasts and genitals not as “private” parts (as they once were viewed), but as potential fashion statements. Breast augmentation, Brazilian bikini waxes, and male enhancement treatments are only some of the ways in which people are marketing themselves sexually. The very thought of a “sexual marketplace” is foreign even to my generation. We now have smartphone apps that provide the physical locations of potential hookup sex partners, and people are transmitting pictures of their genitals through social media. Behaviors that were once reserved for the sanctity of a married couple’s bedroom are now marketed and displayed publicly – thereby increasing the pressure on young people to “measure up” to some imaginary and unreachable standard. Our role models today are less likely to include presidents and newscasters, and more likely to include celebrities whose reckless behavior quickly creates new social standards. So not only are many young people blocked from reaching adulthood, but they are bombarded with role models for childish and irresponsible behavior. Lifestyles that would have been considered deviant 50 years ago are now commonplace. Our society has made it so difficult to become a functioning an adult, while at the same time providing plenty of role models for immaturity – so is it any wonder that today’s young people are living lifestyles that many of us from earlier generations think is crazy?
Arnett, J. J. (2007). Emerging adulthood: What is it, and what is it good for? Child Development Perspectives, 1(2), 68-73.
Cherlin, A. J. (2004). The deinstitutionalization of American marriage. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66, 848-861.
Kalleberg, A. L. (2009). Precarious work, insecure workers: Employment relations in transition. American Sociological Review, 74, 1-22.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2010). Digest of education statistics: 2010. Available from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d10/tables/dt10_197.asp?referrer=report.
Schwartz, S. J., Donnellan, M. B., Ravert. R. D., Luyckx, K., & Zamboanga, B. L. (2013). Identity development, personality, and well-being in adolescence and emerging adulthood: Theory, research, and recent advances. In I. B. Weiner (Series Ed.), and R. M. Lerner, A. Easterbrooks, & J. Mistry (Vol. Eds.), Handbook of psychology, vol. 6: Developmental psychology (pp. 339-364). New York: John Wiley and Sons.