Twenty-somethings taking longer to reach adulthood

Marketplace Staff Mar 4, 2011

Twenty-somethings taking longer to reach adulthood

Marketplace Staff Mar 4, 2011


Tess Vigeland: First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage. And maybe a job somewhere in there, too. Those are the traditional markers of adulthood for young people in this country. But more and more 20-somethings take a different route, a slower one, one marked by less independence.

And Richard Settersten has written a book about them. It’s called “Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood, And Why It’s Good For Everyone.” Thanks for being here.

RICHARD SETTERSTEN: Thank you so much for having me Tess.

VIGELAND: So what exactly does a slower path to adulthood look like? Describe that for us.

SETTERSTEN: Sure. What we’ve been studying is really just how much these big traditional markers of adult hood have changed. Things like leaving home, finishing school, finding work, getting married and having kids. Those are kinda the big five sociological markers. We’ve traditionally thought about as comprising the path to adulthood, and what we know about those is that it takes much longer for young people to achieve those things today — if ever — and the routes there are a lot more complicated.

VIGELAND: How much of that has to do with the economy?

SETTERSTEN: Well, a lot of it, but it’s not necessarily about the recession, per se. The recession has mainly heightened a set of patterns that have been in the works for decades, actually. Some big themes around the economy really are that it takes much longer today to get jobs or find jobs that allow you to live independently, let alone raise a family. And it also takes a whole lot more, in terms of resources, to get launched: The cost of school, the cost of living, the cost of housing, for example.

VIGELAND: When we talk about delaying the onset of living like an adult, I think probably the image that comes first and foremost to a lot of people’s minds is moving back in with mom and dad. And the common term that’s used is “mooching.” But is this perhaps kind of the new post-college graduate lifestyle?

SETTERSTEN: You know, we’ve always thought about living at home as a problem, because leaving home has always been the traditional marker of independence. And independence has always been the traditional marker of adulthood. So when kids start staying at home longer or coming home later, it’s not a surprise that public concern grows up about it. But if you take kind of a historical view, a look at the time before World War II, most people are pretty surprised to learn that rates of living with parents were equally high, if not higher than the decades before the war. It was the conditions after World War II that made a kind of quick start, lock-step life possible. And that life is now dead for all of us.

VIGELAND: I wondered at all if this is a class issue, from either side of the spectrum. Either kids who are more well-off have the luxury to put off adulthood, or conversely, kids who are more well-off have the resources to be out on their own.

SETTERSTEN: One of the really powerful stories that gets carried through all of our analyses is just how divergent the destinies of young people are. And that’s really conditioned where they’re positions when they start. In the book, we talk about kids who are kind of swimmers, treaders and sinkers — it’s a rough rubric. But you know, the typical swimmer — the kid who’s doing pretty well — has the strong support of parents. It’s not just money; it’s guidance, an emotional support. These are kids who’ve got a good sense of their future, they’re making really strategic decisions that are a good match to their skills and abilities.

Treaders — and that’s a big group of kids — have really precarious futures and they look really different. You know, they’re probably not the kind of kid who would’ve gone to college in an earlier era. They’ve heard college is the way, they’re not sure where it’s all going, what they want to do. Often these are also first generation college students, who might have support of parents, but whose parents just don’t have the know-how how to navigate college. And in work too, treaders are the kinds of kids who are in low-paying service work, often with no benefits. These are the kinds of kids who’ll hop from one job to another for a pay increase of 20 cents an hour. How many of us would do that?

VIGELAND: And what about parents who might be looking at these kids who are not quite leaving the nest as quickly as they might have thought they would? Words of advice for them?

SETTERSTEN: You know, I’d say, parents be present. The support of parents is probably the single most important determinant in terms of how young people fare as they’re moving through their twenties. So I’d say, step back if you do too much, if you’re one of those parents who go overboard. And step up if you don’t do enough — stay connected, give advice, guide. But again, don’t go too far. I’d also say, relax, stay involved. And remember the world that your kid is trying to navigate is inherently different from the one that you tackled at that age.

VIGELAND: Dr. Richard Settersten is the co-author of “Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood, And Why It’s Good For Everyone.” Thanks so much for being with us.

SETTERSTEN: Thank you.

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