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When Do Our Children Become Adults?

I won't grow up,
(I won't grow up)
I don't want to wear a tie.
(I don't want to wear a tie)
And a serious expression
(And a serious expression)
In the middle of July.
(In the middle of July)
And if it means I must prepare
To shoulder burdens with a worried air,
I'll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up
Not me,
Not I,
Not me!
So there! --“I won’t grow up” from Peter Pan

 Does it sometimes seem that your adult child is living those lyrics? If so you’re not alone, and take heart:  they are part of a full-fledged trend documented by authors, academics, think tanks and the media!

As mothering 21 reported in “Emerging Adults,” the traditional markers of adulthood are financial independence, accepting responsibility and making independent decisions.  At age 22, many baby boomers were finished college, living on their own, launching careers and calling home once a week.  Not so Gen Y.  Thanks to helicopter parents, electronic umbilical cords, and the recession, many are taking a lot longer to launch independent lives. 

A New York Times article pronounced that “young adulthood has undergone a profound shift.”  The  “Long Road to Adulthood is Growing Even Longer”  noted that not only are the traditional markers pushed back five or ten years, but that other milestones of adulthood like marriage and children are also delayed or now regarded as “lifestyle choices.”

That raises the question of whether the trend of slowly emerging adulthood is a negative development just because baby boomers had a difference experience, in a very different world. Maybe there is an upside as a Princeton University/Brookings Institution report pointed out, noting that Gen Y has many more life options and no longer must follow the “rigid three-part model of life of education-work-retirement.”  The good news about emerging adulthood?  According to the report, What’s Going on with Young People Today?:

Many young people now have more time to build their skills and earn credentials, to pursue activities meant for personal growth, to experience multiple jobs, and to experiment in romantic relationships before they settle in.

Still the question remains: What constitutes adulthood in 2010?  The Wall Street Journal recently asked readers: “When Did You Really Become an ‘Adult’?”  

The query drew a fascinating range of responses: for some it was financial independence signified by renting an apartment, paying their own college costs, buying a car or a owning a house.  For others, adulthood was marked by caring for a physically or emotionally ailing parent or grandparent.  For others it was making decisions that parents didn’t approve of such as moving to another state or in with boyfriend or girlfriend.  Several became fully adult when they become parents:

Taking baby home from the hospital was humbling, terrifying, and put everything into perspective.

Others concurred with one writer that taking care of the life’s mundane details—like buying toilet paper–signified adulthood: 

I was driving back home thinking, “I need to stop at the bank, CVS, grab some toilet paper… maybe I should get an oil change while I’m at it.” And, all the sudden, driving down the highway, I thought to myself – “Hum, I guess I’m grown up.” “

One comment that struck a chord was from “Tucker” who defines adulthood as the acceptance of the fact that life’s options are limited:  

“…Some definition or criteria for adulthood, in my opinion it would have to include something about the realization and acceptance of life’s tradeoffs…As a general rule, we’re not a society that teaches our children that life has any limits for them. That very well might be the single biggest detail we truly let them discover on their own.  In countless discussions on this column, contributors write something to the effect that all through childhood, their formal schooling, and early careers they never even realized that they wouldn’t be able to “do it all,” specifically, uber-parent, fast-paced career track, and gourmet chef on the side.

Adults are the ones that have faced and come to terms with this, evaluated their priorities and deployed their limited time and resources as they’ve seen fit. In some ways, thinking along these lines is very depressing, but in others it’s quite a relaxing, peaceful exercise.

Yes, lots of us do tell our children: you can grow up to be president. When they—and we—realized that’s not going to happen it can be deflating. Maybe one way to put a positive spin on the acceptance of life’s trade offs is to believe that we can have it all….but not at the same time.  Lots of baby boomers are running their first marathons at 50 or trekking to far off lands at 60 or starting a second career at 70, conveying that message through words and action.

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