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Delayed Adulthood: Preliminary Thoughts

August 27, 2009

I have written a bit over the last year about my problems with technological progress and consumerist ideology. One of the most serious consequences of these trends that I have yet to touch upon is delayed adulthood.

Commentators and social theorists are observing that my generation is not growing up. Young adults now take five years on average to get a bachelor’s degree. Marriage, children, home ownership, and a career that can support them all are each coming much later. In the meantime, my generation is living at home with mom and dad, if not all the time, at least some of the time – I myself have had to move in and out of my parent’s home a few times since I graduated.

Only in modern day Western societies, where the struggle for daily existence has been abolished for the majority of the population, could the phenomenon of delayed adulthood arise. It isn’t just that there are too many college degrees and not enough jobs, though that plays an important role. Prolonged education is a part of delayed adulthood. Millions of young people have absolutely no idea what they want to do, what sort of goals they should set for themselves, or what it is that makes life worth living. Meaningful religion has been scrubbed from most of their lives, replaced with some version of Cafeteria Christianity, New Age occultism, or far more frequently, agnosticism, cynicism, relativism and nihilism.

In short, for many in our generation, there is nothing to look forward to. Throughout human history there were new frontiers for each new generation to explore, both physical and intellectual. In our day and age, the physical frontier is space, and unless you have about twenty million dollars, a trip to the space-station is out of the question. The intellectual frontiers are still exciting for those with the aptitude and desire to explore the hard sciences, especially quantum physics. But if we turn to the social sciences and humanities, where many aimless college students end up, the frontiers have been fenced off by the guardians of academic consensus.

It isn’t that my generation cannot let go of childhood; rather, it looks out beyond it and sees a meaningless existence, where one works to acquire things which make work bearable in the pursuit of more things. Some lucky souls will find careers that satisfy them, but at a rapidly increasing rate young people are cycling not only through jobs but whole careers. Majors are selected arbitrarily and changed arbitrarily – it is “no big deal”. One day one’s whole life can be dedicated to psychology; the next, communications; the next, anthropology.

Life has become one large cafeteria, in fact, and it has been since the advent of consumerism and the technological infrastructure that made it possible. What began in the realm of consumer goods was inevitably going to end up happening in the realm of ideas, attitudes, lifestyles, and even major life choices. We are not merely physical consumers of physical goods; our souls too are consumers of immaterial goods. One article I read put the problem plainly: we have so many choices that they weigh us down and overwhelm us. And we can have so much of whatever we choose that it will inevitably loose its distinctive flavor and taste like anything else.

Because we are social beings we will always have a natural inclination to have a place in a well-defined social order, regardless of our libertarian, anarchist, or Satanic pretensions. And because we are specially created souls in the image of God we will always have a desire for fulfillment and completion on an individual level regardless of our collectivist pretensions. Neither dimension of our human existence can be fulfilled in a mass-consumerist society.

Part of the problem of delayed adulthood is a growing lack of respect for the young person as a human being. It is, as I have noted elsewhere, the “flip side” of abortion on demand. With abortion the child is disposed of as an unwanted commodity; with delayed adulthood, the child becomes the object of disproportionate and ultimately unhealthy levels of protection and care, a commodity to be put on display or safely stowed away. For most of human history adulthood practically began during the teenage years. Today it begins for many during their mid-late 20s. I imagine some will point to longer life-spans as a justification for some of this, but our social, emotional and intellectual capacities do not change with them. They can be warped by society but the damage can also be undone.

Children in our society are simultaneously exposed to horrific levels of sex and violence and confronted with dozens of institutions, rules, laws, and authority figures that supposedly exist to keep them safe and regimented. Such a contrast only renders each and every one of the latter a meaningless and sometimes cruel joke. Our society is incapable of sending one clear, consistent, comprehensible message to young people. This contributes greatly to their general confusion.

The truth is that I do not mind, and believe it is healthy, that young people are exposed to “dangerous” things, because life is dangerous, and knowledge is better than ignorance. Our schizophrenic culture, which has completely and hopelessly lost touch with the notion of moderation, either creates unrealistically sterile and wholesome environments, or those which are over-saturated with, and glorify, that which is evil and corrupt. We celebrate and wish to preserve at all costs “the innocence of childhood” long past the point – well into the teenage years – that it should have been left behind.

I do believe, however, that we can learn from our mistakes. There is no reason why we must raise and educate young people in such a way that the world has lost all wonder and meaning. By introducing them to greater responsibilities at a younger age, and more importantly, great ideas and perennial questions about life, society, spirituality, etc., we can turn the tide of empty relativism. The simple statement that there is a knowable truth, no matter who believes it, independent of opinion and emotion, approachable – if not 100% knowable – by the mind and the senses, could inspire new generations.

Even those incurably bored by such pursuits could benefit greatly from simply being treated as a capable human being as soon as possible (as I pointed out in an earlier post, I believe education needs to take personal aptitudes and desires into account). Delayed adulthood, the prolonging of innocence, only serves the misplaced desires of parents, teachers, and other caretakers of the young – it does not help the child or the student. We must prepare and equip our children to deal with a broken and fallen world, and instill in them a hope that in spite of its brokenness it is worth living in and preserving.

  1. August 30, 2009 3:56 pm

    Good to have you back Joe!

    Good post.

    You and I are approximately the same age. I have also had to live with my parents post-graduation, although that was primarily due to Katrina. I can remember as a young teen thinking that I don’t want to grow up, and then clarifying that I never wanted to take life too seriously. Furthermore, as a new parent, this gives some food for thought on child-rearing etc., especially since we are considering home schooling.

  2. Bill H permalink
    September 1, 2009 5:50 pm

    Sorry I’m a few days late on this post, but I want to say that I agree entirely.

    I’ll be 32 soon, married for three years and a bit, and have one two-year-old and another on the way in a few months. I bought my first house a little over a year ago. Very few of my friends from school are in the same position (indeed, I admit that I envy them at times for their seemingly carefree lifestyle). I’m often told that I seem so young to have the career that I have and the family that I have.

    Yet, compared to a generation ago (let alone several generations ago) I’m relatively old. I felt like I took a long time to get married and get settled by comparison to my parents. It just seems like more and more people (especially among the well-educated) are delaying adulthood for as long as they can get away with it.


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