Americans are taking longer to grow up. At least that is the conclusion of recent studies that examine demographic factors such as when young adults become fully self-supporting, get married, and have children. Why is this so?
This New York Times article theorizes that one major reason is that the most recent two generations have seen a dramatic increase in the number of people attending college, which can delay the starting age for careers and families. Although it is not mentioned, by extension I think that the same might be true for the number of Americans obtaining graduate degrees, which adds to the delay before full entry into the workforce. The article also notes that the financial burdens associates with college have increased the number of people in their 20's who remain financially dependent, at least to some degree, on their parents.
But is the impact of greater and longer education the the only reason? I have often thought that my generation (I am at the tail end of Generation X) and Generation Y's are not growing up fast enough. It is as if in some ways these generations are stuck in a permanent adolescence.
I wonder if, beyond educational trends, the internet and the rise of related technologies has also played a large part. Much of Gen X and Y engage in their socialization online. Facebook, Twitter, and virtual worlds create what I've thought of as an illusion of connection -- people share their Facebook status updates about what they ate for dinner, or what happened on the bus ride to work. To some degree this has replaced more face-to-face intereactions involving more serious discussions by which we learn and grow.
Much of the internet is also anonymous (do you know who the author of this article is?). In a world of literal social anonymity, people can easily avoid taking responsibility for their words. Countless websites and forums that I have visited follow the same pattern -- a post or a thread about a substantive topic can devolve into some sort of war between anonymous people hiding between pseudonyms and avatars. Taking responsibility when we say something that irrates or offends someone, and learning how to handle those types of conflicts, I think is a key part of moving from adolescence into adulthood. Adulthood is not just about buying a house, or having kids. In the past decade just about anyone could "buy" a home with 0% down, and 14 year-olds can obviously have babies.
Adulthood is about evolving our social interactions with our family, friends, and professional colleagues. Much of the rise of web 2.0, while incredibly valuable and enriching in some respects, has also helped to force a delay in evolving the manner in which young adults interact with others in their social communities. If we feel that this delay into adulthood has negative consequences for society, we will have to evolve those technologies, too.