Teens Delaying Adulthood

A new study, “The Decline in Adult Activities Among U.S. Adolescents, 1976–2016,” published in September 2017 in the journal Child Development, found that youth are postponing activities that have typically been considered a rite of passage into adulthood. Some of these activities, such as having sex and drinking alcohol, are risks we want teens to delay, and many are delighted by the decrease. However, some of the activities, such as working for pay, going out without parents, and driving, are independent living skills that teens need to develop in order to become responsible adults.

Percentages of adolescents in the United States that engage in “adult-like” activities have significantly declined, with the largest decreases occurring in the past decade. For example:

  • Gone on a date: 86% of teens between 1976-79; 63% of teens between 2010-15
  • Earned money from working: 76% of teens between 1976-79; 55% of teens between 2010-15
  • Tried alcohol: 93% of teens between 1976-79; 67% of teens between 2010-15
  • Obtained driver’s license: 88% of high school seniors between 1976-79; 73% of high school seniors between 2010-15

The declines appeared across race, geographic, and socioeconomic lines.

The lead author of the study, Jean Twenge, felt that determining the cause is not easy. The researchers believe that these trends are unlikely to be due to homework and extracurricular time, which stayed steady or declined. Nor could the use of smartphones and the Internet be entirely the cause, the report said, since the decline began before they were widely available. Older generations often snap to quick judgements such as teens today are more responsible (less drinking alcohol and having sex) or that they are more lazy (not working or driving).

In reality, Twenge believes that youth may be less interested in dating, driving or getting job simply because they don’t have to. When people face a difficult or unpredictable environment, we tend to focus more on survival and, as a result, speed up our development. When we live in a more secure environment that is full of resources, people tend to slow down their development because there isn’t a need. “A century ago, when life expectancy was lower and college education less prevalent, “the goal back then was survival, not violin lessons by 5,” Twenge said.

Twenge summarizes that the trend points to a slowing of teen development that matches a well-documented slowing of young adult development. “While people in their early 20s now often act more like teens, young teens often act more like children. There are advantages and disadvantages. One of the advantages is that it’s safer (for teens). One disadvantage is that teens and youths often arrive at colleges and jobs unprepared for independence.

Final Thoughts…

If you are concerned about these trends, read two of our previous blogs that provide tips for how to raise teenagers to be prepared for independence:

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