Why are kids taking longer to grow up?

My husband and I were talking about where our kids are in their lives, some of their friends, and it seems like back in our day — kids grew up faster.

Have you noticed that our adult children are taking longer to fly the nest than previous generations? When I was young, it was common for kids to leave home after high school graduation. In my hometown, many got married after high school or college and started their families by their early 20s. Today, it seems kids aren’t grown up without our support until mid to late 20s. Add the pandemic to the mix, and I’ve read that more adult children than ever have moved back in with mom and dad.

high school students prom picture
Senior prom–the kids got together in person.

Several articles published reference a study by San Diego State University professor of psychology Jean M. Twenge. She studied millions of kids to come up with the fact that millennials are taking longer to grow up than previous generations. Twenge doesn’t make a judgment on whether that’s good or bad, she just states it as a fact.

In a talk I attended a few years ago for my daughter’s college, in one of the sessions led by an Associate Vice President of Student Affairs, Psychologist Kari Ellingson said the same thing. She said when we were young, kids matured into adults at age 19, 20 and 21. Today, those numbers are delayed to 26, 27 and 28.

In an article from the New York Times, called “The curse of the helicopter parent” Twenge and her study are cited:

New York – Parents may still marvel at how fast their children grow up, but a new study finds that US teenagers are maturing more slowly than past generations.

In some ways, the trend appears positive: high school children today are less likely to be drinking or having sex compared with their counterparts in the 1980s and 1990s.

But they are also less likely to go on dates, have a part-time job or drive – traditional milestones along the path to adulthood.

So is that slower development “good” or “bad”? It may depend on how you look at it, the researchers say.

The findings, published online in the journal Child Development this week, are based on surveys done between 1976 and 2016.

Together, they involved more than 8 million US children in the 13-19 age group.

Over those years, the study found, teenagers gradually became less likely to try “adult” activities – including drinking, having sex, working, driving, dating and simply going out (with or without their parents).

By the 2010s, only 55% of high school seniors had ever worked for pay – versus roughly three-quarters of their counterparts in the late 1970s to the 1990s.

Similarly, only 63% had ever been on a date. That compared with 81% to 87% of high school seniors in the 1970s through 1990s.

In the San Diego Tribune, contact reporter Bradley J. Fikes wrote: “Teens are growing up more slowly — and they seem OK with it.”

Mid- to -late teens are delaying the classic milestones of adulthood, namely working, going out without their parents, driving, dating, having sex, and drinking alcohol, according to four decades of surveys reviewed for the study, led by San Diego State University professor of psychology Jean M. Twenge.

Today’s 18-year-olds exhibit similar milestone behaviors as did 15-year-olds in the late 1970s, Twenge said. Moreover, they’re mostly doing this voluntarily — parents aren’t imposing this delayed independence.

The spread of smartphones, which allow teens to socialize from the safety of their homes, is part of the explanation, said Twenge. The author of “Generation Me,” she has released a new book on the generation born after 1995 called “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.”

When I look back on my teenage years compared to my kids, we had a whole lot more freedom. We were out all the time and our parents didn’t seem to care where we were. In fact, my parents were enjoying weekends on our boat or at the cabin and would leave my brother and me alone when we were teens. The same was true for a lot of my friends’ parents, as well. They didn’t keep track of us on a minute by minute basis. They also didn’t track us on “find my iPhone” or other tracking apps. There weren’t any cell phones to call home and they told us to be home by a certain time.

I wonder how much influence our technology has today over our kids not growing up so fast? They aren’t getting together with friends to interact in person. They can do that from the comfort of their own bedrooms. Plus, they have all the entertainment they can consume, right on their iPhones. We helicopter parents keep a close eye on our kids and we know where they are at all times. By contrast, our parents told us to get outside and not come back until dinner. Between us and iPhones, our kids aren’t getting real-world experiences.

Everyone I knew growing up had some sort of part-time job in high school–even if it was working for their family’s business. I worked in my dad’s dental office and my brother bagged groceries at the local Safeway. Today, I know of very few kids with part-time jobs. My own son worked several jobs, but he was one of the few. He was an assistant lifeguard, then a coach for our team. He tutored in math and was paid to maintain a website. Very few of my kids’ friends had jobs after school. Teens today must not need to earn money because we are providing for all their needs and wants.

On the bright side, it’s good our kids aren’t running around at night unsupervised, drinking and having sex as teens. Also, they actually like hanging out with their parents!

mother and daughter sailing
Hanging out together in the summer.

Here’s a story I wrote that included psychologist Jean M. Twenge.

What are your thoughts about why kids are not growing up as fast as we did? What difference do you see between your life as a teen or 20 year old and your kids?

8 thoughts on “Why are kids taking longer to grow up?

  1. Now that parents are obligated (under Obamacare) to carry the kids on their insurance until they are like 27, the Government is TELLING them they are still kids. Uber and Lyft has made a drivers license unnecessary, where back in our day, it was a serious right of passage to freedom, and by extension, adulthood. My grandkids could care less about getting a DL. Toss in the liberalization of America and participation trophies, you are robbing them of any incentive to take on adult responsibility, so they do not. Mom/Dad can take care of laundry food, utilities, all while my ass sits and play fortnight unto O’Dark 30. There, That is my take. On my 18th birthday, I got two new suitcases, already packed.

    • Great comment. Also, I got two new suitcases for high school graduation. Yes, my 25 year old is still on our insurance — and she got laid off during the shutdown for 10 months. If she doesn’t like a job, she quits before she finds a new one because she can. I remember sticking it out at a job I didn’t like until I interviewed and landed a better job.

  2. We also were supposed to know exactly what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives at the age of 22. We now recognize that is an unrealistic expectation.

    Maybe it’s also due to the generation that is raising today’s children? I’m sure a lot of kids wanted to get out of the house sooner back then. 🙂

    • Yes, crazy to expect to know what to do with your entire life at 22. Or 18 when you decide on a college major or a trade. Maybe we make our children’s lives too comfortable. We were all dying to get out on our own. You have a point.

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