Are Young People Today Growing Up Too Slowly?

When does a young adult become an adult? At a specific age, like 25 years old? Probably not.

A more reliable marker of entering adulthood is when a young person takes on responsibilities related to family and work — finishing school, finding steady employment, getting married, and having children, for example.

Researchers have known for some time that young Americans are waiting longer and longer to assume adult responsibilities. This trend has been evident for at least 40 years, but the reasons are unclear. Teenagers and young adults are taking longer to achieve milestones like driving, dating, moving out, full-time work, being economically independent, marriage, and parenthood—but no one really knows why.

Enter psychologists Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell. Building on earlier work, they recently completed two archival studies that examined the link between cultural individualism (CI) and later onset of adult responsibilities (LOAR). As reported in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, Twenge and Campbell's first study examined the relationship between CI and LOAR across five decades in the U.S. The second study examined the relationship between CI and LOAR in a group of 53 nations.

In the first study, Twenge and Campbell tracked yearly indicators of individualism and indicators of adult-role responsibilities in the United States between 1973 and 2015. Indicators of individualism included the percentage of unusual baby names chosen by parents in that year and the percentage of survey respondents who agreed that sex between two unmarried adults is "not wrong at all." Yearly indicators of adult-role responsibilities included the average age at first marriage and the percentage of young men ages 15 to 24 who were employed.

Between 1972 and 2015, indicators of individualism and adult-role responsibilities increased slowly but surely; they also were very strongly correlated with each other. In more individualistic years, young adults were slower to take on adult work and family roles. In less individualistic years, young adults were faster to take on adult roles.

In the second study, Twenge and Campbell gathered United Nations statistics related to work and family roles in 53 different nations. Average age of first marriage and years of compulsory education, for example. They also noted, for each nation, its cultural individualism rating, which had been calculated earlier by social psychologist Geert Hofstede and his colleagues on the basis of large-scale surveys.

In the group of 53 countries, higher individualism rankings were associated with taking longer to settle into adult roles (r = +0.66). In more individualistic countries like Australia and the Netherlands, young people are likely to assume work and family responsibilities later in life. In less individualistic countries like Guatemala and Nigeria, young people are likely to assume work and family responsibilities earlier in life.

Astute readers will immediately wonder if a third variable—economic factors—may be responsible for the link between individualism and later onset of adulthood. Twenge and Campbell also wondered about this, so they gathered economic data for the years 1973-2015 in the first study and for all 53 nations in the second study.

Economic strength is positively associated with cultural individualism but, according to Twenge and Campbell, individualism seems to be a better predictor than economic strength of slow maturation to adulthood. Nevertheless, "given how intertwined these variables are, we want to be cautious in making any strong statement about a 'test' between individualism versus economic factors" (Twenge & Campbell, 2018, p. 680).

The observed relationship between individualism and slower maturation to adulthood is seemingly counter-intuitive. If individualistic cultures encourage young people to be self-reliant and value autonomy, then young people in those cultures should want to strike out on their own sooner rather than later, right?

Twenge and Campbell offer a slightly different conceptualization of individualism, which fits nicely with their findings. In their view, individualism includes "both more focus on the self and less focus on social rules" (p. 674). As a result, young adults may perceive adulthood as an impediment to individualism because having adult responsibilities at home and at work limits their choices and forces them to put the needs of others ahead of their own needs. By forgoing the traditional markers of adulthood like driving, working a full-time job, and getting married, young people can put off "adulting" for a few more years.

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