Every generation, it seems, bemoans the irresponsibility and self-indulgence of the one that follows. Even Socrates described the folly of youth in ancient Greece, lamenting: “Youth now love luxury. They have bad manners and contempt for authority.” However, in recent years, commentators have argued that something is distinctly stunted about the development of today’s young adults. Many have pointed to Millennials and Gen Zers as being uniquely resistant to “growing up.” Some theorists have even suggested that a new developmental stage is needed to account for the fact that youth today are taking longer to reach adulthood and are more reliant on their parents than generations past.
Yet nothing about delaying adulthood and extending adolescence is uniquely modern. Taking more time to come of age is not due to lack of stamina or motivation on the part of today’s youth, as the common narrative proclaims. Delayed adulthood is an expected response to the economic conditions shaping the period when young adults enter the workforce.
Five indicators are commonly understood as the markers of adulthood: finishing one’s education, leaving home, finding work, finding a life partner, and having children. Although many young adults reach the legal age of adulthood before they achieve these five markers, and others do not choose to reach them all, many still consider some combination of these benchmarks to define what it means to be an adult. Compared with the mid-20th century, young adults in the United States appear to be taking longer to reach these markers today. Fewer young-adult men ages 16 to 24 are settled into permanent jobs, and fewer men and women are married with children today than in the 1950s. Further, the median age at first marriage for men rose from 23 in 1950 to 30 by 2018. For women, the median age at first marriage rose from 20 to 28 over the same period. These mid-20th-century patterns are often used as the measuring stick against which young adults today are judged. Based on these data, young people today do seem unique in delaying adulthood. But this is only part of the picture.