.Markers of Adulthood and Its Delays
by Michael Shaughnessy

Adulthood delayed
Adulthood is not easy to define. The dictionary simply defines it as “maturity” or “the age of majority”. That definition doesn’t help a young person know, “When do I become and adult?”

It is clear, however, that the age at which one becomes an adult has been shifting higher. Delayed adulthood is a reality.

Adulthood involves reaching specific markers in life, most of which follow the end of formal education. As the years spent in formal education were extended from eight years to twelve to eighteen, the start of adulthood was delayed as well.

The nine markers of adulthood
Adulthood is easier to describe than to define. Most people are considered adults when they reach a set of markers. The markers may vary in importance and order.

The markers are:
  1. The End of Formal Education – School is over, “real life” has begun.
  2. Reaching Specific Ages – 18? 21? 30? No specific age makes you an adult but they all have an impact.
  3. Full-time work – When work becomes the main thing you do all day.
  4. Financial independence – When your parents no longer pave the way for you.
  5. Living Permanently on Your Own – None of your stuff is at your parents’ home anymore.
  6. Stabilization of Beliefs – A stable adult life requires stable beliefs.
  7. Marriage – This also includes vocational celibacy.
  8. Having Children – Your life is not your own anymore.
  9. Self-identifying as an Adult – You are an adult when you know you are.
Are you an adult?
You probably are nearing adulthood when some or most of the following are true…
  1. You are now someone’s godfather or godmother.
  2. Your alma mater has sent you a fundraising letter.
  3. You know how much a refrigerator costs.
  4. You are no longer in most of the pictures on your cell phone.
  5. You have googled the term 401.k.
  6. You no longer “feel” what you believe, you believe it.
  7. You know what your copay is because it just went up again.
  8. Dream job???
  9. You have bought wedding gifts three times in one summer.
  10. You have stopped wondering whether you are an adult.
  11. Your back hurts.
  12. The word poop is a regular part of your vocabulary again.

delayed adulthood

Delayed adulthood

The top of the bellcurve that describes when people achieve full adulthood is longer and flatter than it used to be. It is also significantly delayed when compared to 1970.

money symbolFinancial independence has been delayed an average of six years. In 1970 most young people became responsible for their own finances when they finished high school or turned 18. Their allowance stopped. Parents may have helped with college tuition but few paid for it outright. Health-care coverage stopped when full-time education stopped. Today, many parents pay the fulll cost of college and must carry their children on their insurance until they turn 26.

graduation hatFormal education has been extended an average of three years. The delay in finishing formal education is even greater over the past century. In 1910 only 9% of Americans had a high school diploma; by 1940 that number had risen to 50%. In 1970 only 11% of Americans had a college degree. Today, that figure has nearly tripled.

More people are in formal education longer – thus delaying their transition into adulthood. Many also now are taking six years to complete a four year degree.

median age for marriageThe median age for marriage is significantly delayed as well. In 1970 the median age for women was 21; for men it was 23. Today it is 27 for women and 29 for men – a delay of six years. Many factors contribute to this: prolonged education, a stronger career orientation for women, increased college debt, and the sexual revolution are a few of them.

when first child
                                  is born after marriageThe age at which the first child is born, one of the most definitive markers of adulthood, is now delayed nearly five years. In 1970 the average age was 21.4. Today it is over 26.

first house purchaseThe average age of first house purchase is also delayed, but not as significantly. In 1970 it was 31. Today it is 33.

Delayed adulthood makes for a longer period of instability in life. Navigating the path to adulthood is harder than ever. The transition into adulthood is slower, less definitive when it happens, and less clear that it is complete. It is harder to become an adult than it was before.

Another consequence of delayed adulthood is the emergence of a new stage of life. The New York Times calls it emerging adulthood. The stage has its own psychological, spiritual, and social realities. Many of which have not been closely examined.

For those who work pastorally with this age group it is critical to understand how this stage of life works and how to help those in it make some of the most important decisions of their lives.

To be continued…

Michael Shaughnessy is the Kairos director for the Sword of the Spirit both in North America and Internationally. He is the editor of the Kairos Youth Culture Newsletter. Kairos is an international federation of outreaches to high school, university and post university aged people.
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