Young people taking longer to grow up

Bryan Roth

Call it Peter Pandemonium. Call it being a Toys ‘R Us kid. Either way, it’s taking Americans a longer time to grow up nowadays.

While the idea of adolescence still is relatively new, with true beginnings in the 1960s, a new phase is adding more time to the process of growing up: extended adolescence.

Also known as emerging adulthood, extended adolescence helps define teens and 20-somethings who are taking longer to move into the role of an adult. 

“In American society, we put so much emphasis on youth and we make age seem like such a bad thing,” said Michael Ofsowitz, an assistant professor of psychology at Monroe Community College. “From the individual's point of view, anything that can help them avoid getting older will help them feel younger, which we all want to do in American society because old age is associated with a lot of lousy things.”

The idea of extended adolescence can be traced to the growing importance of education, which allows young people to maintain youthful roles for a longer period of time, Ofsowitz said.

Beginning in the 1960s, the number of people between 25 years old and 34 years old who had completed four or more years of college doubled for three straight decades and continues to grow today, although at a slower pace, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The biggest strides have been made with women. For females in the same age group, the number of women who went to college for four or more years has grown by seven times the amount in 2006 as 1960.

Factors such as an increase in women's rights and the ability for females to move into the work force and not have so much pressure to get married and have children work to extend the idea of adolescence, Ofsowitz said.

Pointing to the ‘60s, psychologist and author Dr. Robert Epstein said the decade provided the biggest impetus to extending adolescence.

“It has a lot to do with the protest of the Vietnam War,” said Epstein, author of “The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen.” “The social turmoil of the ’60s put into motion a whole new set of restrictions that gave (parents power over) young people.”

With the ability to enact harsher restrictions, Epstein believes that older members of society took away young people's ability to more easily move into an adult role and become autonomous.

Today, we see more of that because of parental financial support, said Dr. Melissa Ghera, a developmental psychologist at St. John Fisher College.  

“You have to have economic support to be able to take four, five, six or seven years for education," she said. "Parents have to be willing and able to support that kind of adolescence or emerging adulthood where they're economically and emotionally supporting their kids.”

Ghera said parents focus on engagement, warmth and sensitivity toward their children from an early age. So, if a family is now able to financially support a child while they go to school or explore options after college, it's commonplace to do so.

According to the U.S. Census, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had finished school, left home, got married, had a child and gained monetary independence by age 30 in 1960. By 2000, those numbers had drastically dropped to 46 percent of women and 31 percent of men. 

“Here, we just don't have that clear expectation for how a 30-year-old behaves because in American society, we just think it's cool to act younger,” Ofsowitz said. “In European society, if the expectations on how to act as a 30-year-old include not acting like a frat brother anymore, then you're going to give that up.”

Around the world, Epstein said the idea of adolescence doesn’t widely exist and there’s many cultures that allow young people to move into adulthood whenever they feel ready.

In the United States, however, we base the capacity for maturity and being adult more on age, he said. So, when it comes to rectifying what he thinks is a problem, Epstein said it’s a matter trust and believing in young people.

“We have to get the word out ... about how capable young people are,” he said. “We have to rediscover the adult in every teen.”

Fast Facts:

The average age of significant life events have changed since the 1970s as extended adolescence became more common:

First marriage

1970 — Men: 23.2 years old; Women: 20.8 years old

2003 — Men: 27.1 years old; Women: 25.3 years old

Percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds that live with parents

1970 — 47.3 percent

2003 — 50.3 percent

Living together, but not married

1970 — 523,000

2003 — 5.1 million

First child for women

1970 — 22.1 years old

2003 — 24.8 years old

The number of people 25 to 34 who have had four or more years of college -- a place where psychologists say young people can go to extend adolescence -- has grown dramatically since the ’60s:

1960 — 2,499,000

1970 — 3,926,000

1980 — 8,836,000

1990 — 10,326,000

2000 — 11,040,000

2006 — 11,806,000

Source: U.S. Census

-- Brighton-Pittsford Post