Teens are delaying adulthood. 18 is the new 15 for today’s teens, and young adults often act more like teens.
The summer of my fifth-grade year was when I worked my first job. Growing up in the state of Washington, it was common for young kids to spend a portion of their summer picking berries.
I picked strawberries and blueberries over the course of several summers. You got paid by the pound, so I quickly learned you could make more money stuffing rocks and bugs into strawberries.
To this day, I refuse to eat Smucker’s products. Working and earning money during the summer was an expectation earlier on in my life.
My, how the times have changed. At least that’s what the latest data suggests when it comes to teens growing up and taking on adult responsibilities.
18 Is the New 15!
According to a new study based on 40 years of survey data, today’s teens are on a slow road to adulthood.
The good news: teens are delaying risky behaviors from drinking to sex. That’s the good news. The bad news: teens are also delaying getting jobs, driving, dating, and other steps towards independence.
“The whole developmental pathway has slowed down,” said Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the lead author of the study published in the journal Child Development.
The study relies on seven nationally representative surveys repeated with 8 million teens, ages 13-19, over several decades.
Twenge and her co-author Heejung Park, assistant professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College, say the trends all point in the same direction – a slowing of teen development that matches a well-documented postponement of young adult development.
While people in their early 20s now often act more like teens, young teens often act more like children.
I was speaking at a local high school the day that the new study was made public. I’ve been speaking at schools and churches for the past four years about the need to “launch” teens. Why? Because a jump in age doesn’t guarantee a jump in “stage.”
As a licensed counselor who specializes in working with failure to launch young men, I’ve witnessed firsthand the need young people have for guidance and consultation to successfully transition into adulthood.
Just How Much Have Things Changed?
Neil Howe, who helped coin the term “millennials” has recommended the next generation be known as the “Homeland Generation.” Why?
One big reason today’s teens are delaying growing up is that they are participating in social activities outside of the home at a significantly lower rate than their predecessors.
What are they doing instead? They are spending more and more time on the internet, texting friends and on social media. What else has changed?
Dating and Face-To-Face Interaction Has Declined
The rates of teens dating have declined. The study showed that only 63 percent of twelfth graders have dated, down from 86 percent according to the data that goes back to 1976.
Teens are also staying home and interacting more online rather than face-to-face, something that may be contributing to an increase in anxiety and a decline in social skills.
Spending less time face-to-face with friends is also contributing to the decline in social skill development for this generation. A 2014 study found that sixth graders who spent just five days at a camp without using screens ended the time better at reading emotions on others’ faces.
They Don’t Care About Driving
Kids are going out as much and therefore aren’t as motivated to get their license. However, when they do venture out, they are more dependent on parents shuttling them back and forth.
“Parents stop doing things for your teen that they can do for themselves.”
In 2014, just under a quarter of 16-year-olds had driver’s licenses, down from 46.2 percent at in 1983. And only 73 percent of twelfth graders have their driver’s license, down from 88 percent in the early 90s.
They Don’t Get Jobs, at Least Not for Pay
In the early 1990s, 63 percent of eighth graders had worked for pay. That rate has dropped to 32 percent. Teens in twelve grade that have worked for pay has dropped from 76 percent to 55 percent.
There are two factors that may help explain the decrease in teenagers working for pay.
First, the possibility of more comfortable and affluent households has reduced the need for some teens to work. Second, the rise of unpaid internships may interfere with work or be viewed as more desirable.
They Don’t Do as Much Homework
One of the more shocking findings from the study is that teens spend fewer hours on homework and the same amount of time on extracurricular activities as they did in the 1990s. Many parents and teens may balk at such a notion and cite their own personal experiences.
But could kids actually be spending the same amount of time on homework but be more distracted and thus need more time to actually complete their school assignments?
Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Don’t Appeal to Them
Though the study data don’t cover younger kids, such nurturing, risk-averse parenting may begin even earlier (i.e. not letting children be alone until a later age, etc.). The researchers’ proposed explanation, then, is basically a more positive restatement of the helicopter parenting hypothesis.
Yes, the researchers concede, teens aren’t being pushed to enter adulthood, but that has its upsides. Maybe teens and their parents are reacting appropriately to a winner-take-all world that demands lengthy education and careful preparation for success.
The percentage of high school students who have had sex fell from 54 percent in 1991 to 41 percent in 2015, according to Centers for Disease Control statistics. The study showed that 29 percent of ninth graders have had sex, which is down from 38 percent from teens surveyed in the early 1990s.
Back in the late 1970s, fully 93 percent of teenagers had tried alcohol at least once. The percentage now is 67 percent: obviously still significant, but a huge drop from a statistical point of view. In the early 90s, 56 percent of eighth graders had tried alcohol. The data from 2010-2016 show a drop to 29 percent.
But Are Today’s Teens Happier?
The decrease in risky behaviors would suggest a happier outlook for parents and teens.
However, all the evidence that Twenge herself and experts in the field of psychology and the iGeneration have uncovered show this generation is more stressed, lonelier, and generally more miserable than those that preceded it.
The study provides a plethora of data to digest, but if parents want to help launch their teens into adulthood, start by not doing the following three things:
STOP Doing Things They Can Do for Themselves
I was in fifth or sixth grade when my mom showed me how to run the washer and dryer. I played travel soccer, and growing up in raining Washington meant my soccer jersey was always wet and muddy.
So, my mom showed me how to run the laundry machines. She showed me how to pick the right settings, how to avoid shrinking my clothes or use too much detergent. And then when I told her I got it and could wash my own clothes … she never washed my clothes ever again. EVER!
Too many parents do more for their children than is necessary or helpful. Parents, you want to help launch your teens into adulthood, stop doing things for them that they can do for themselves.
Make them responsible for their own laundry. Teach them to iron their own clothes. Have your teen prepare and cook their own meals and even meals for the entire family.
“today’s teens are on a slow road to adulthood.”
Parents, if you do everything for your kids, don’t expect them to naturally outgrow that level of help. In a 2007 survey conducted by Michigan State University, 32 percent of large companies report they hear from employees’ parents.
In addition, 31 percent of hiring managers say they’ve seen parents submit their children’s resumes for employment, 4 percent have experienced parents attending interviews for their adult children, and 9 percent say parents have tried negotiating their child’s salary.
STOP Sweating the Small Stuff (and Most of It Is Small Stuff)
Most parents would be better off if they took a step back and gave their kids space to learn and grow into young adulthood. But too often, parents are hyper-focused and overly involved in an early aspect of their kid’s lives, big and small. And it’s doing nobody any favors.
I might be in the minority here, but if the only way your teen can use their smartphone responsibly is to constantly monitor and check what websites they’re viewing, then they aren’t demonstrating the maturity that should come with having a smartphone.
Parents check their kid’s grades online far too often. They seek advice for every small issue they face with their teen. They flood online parenting forums to vent, get advice, or validation that they are good parents and that their kids are punks.
Parents are too invested and focused on their kids, and it’s stressing parents out, it’s stressing teens out, and it is not helping teens develop autonomy and independence.
STOP Preventing Them from Failing and Facing the Consequences of Their Choices
Dr. Dave Verhaagen, a clinical psychologist and author and editor of “Southeast Psych’s Guide for Imperfect Parents,” has previously written about the importance of failure and the psychological benefits of letting kids experience the natural consequences of their poor choices. While it may seem counterintuitive, it’s one of the best things a parent can do.
According to Dr. Stephanie O’Leary, a clinical psychologist specializing in neuropsychology and author of “Parenting in the Real World: The Rules Have Changed,” failure is good for kids on several levels.
O’Leary says rescuing your child sends the message that you don’t trust him or her. “Your willingness to see your child struggle communicates that you believe they are capable and that they can handle any outcome, even a negative one,” she says.
I’m scheduled to speak to parents at a local middle school in two weeks. And I plan to share with them the same information I presented at a local high school about today’s teen culture.
Why? Because middle school parents have the chance to intervene and change at an earlier point in their children’s lives.
If our culture continues to pamper and make kids the central focus of parents’ lives, the data predicts they will only grow more entitled, dependent, and miserable.