Young people today have been
criticised for taking longer to “grow up” than in the past. But in a new book,
Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood,
and Why It’s Good for Everyone, Richard Settersten and Barbara Ray say adults
should back off.
Mr. Settersten, a sociologist at
Oregon State University, talked with USA Today.
Q: We often hear that young adults today are prolonging adolescence
and delaying adulthood. You disagree?
A: So much of the conversation
about young people in our culture is negative, and so much of our research
evidence runs counter to it. With this book, we hope to redirect the
conversation and make it more productive. A slow path is good, and a fast path
Q: What’s different today?
A: If you think back just a few
decades, we’ve seen the complete evaporation of the manufacturing sector. …
The second thing that changed a lot is families. Living at home, for example,
is a possibility for young people now. Some decades ago, it would have been
horrifying to live at home with your parents. (But today) parents and young
people feel a closeness or connection that they didn’t have in the past.
Q: Let’s get to some findings. You and others with the MacArthur Research
Network on Transitions to Adulthood have studied this group for 10 years, including
almost 500 additional interviews from young people around the country. Did any
finding surprise you?
A: There is a realization that to
get young people launched today, we need to provide lots of supports. … Why
do we focus so much on making sure that young people are “independent,” when
human existence is built on relationships? At every age, our welfare rests on
our connections to other people.
Q: Your book says “helicopter parents” aren’t so bad after all. Is
this just Baby Boomers trying to rationalize their involvement in their kids’
A: We’re not necessarily advocating
for helicopter parenting per se, but involved parenting matters. The resources
and relationships of parents are crucial in ensuring kids’ successes. In the
book, we really say we should be more worried about uninvolved parents. Not
having parents around to help you is a real disadvantage. At the end of the
day, we should be talking a lot more about uninvolved parents than we are about
obsessing about super-involved ones.
Q: How do young people today compare with the past?
A: As we evaluate young people
today, it’s like we’ve got the wrong benchmark. That kind of quick start to
adulthood that so many generations have in their heads — all that grows out of
the post war period. (But) that’s the anomaly. It was a time when people were
quick to leave home. They were also quick to marry. Why? It’s because economic
opportunities were ample and social conventions really encouraged it. It was
expected and also possible. But if you look further back, you’d see that a lot
of the patterns today — with young people in a period of semi-autonomy— was
also true of the decades before World War II.
Q: What worries you most about the future?
A: There’s so many negative
portrayals of young people, and there are so many worries about why young
people are taking their time. My bigger worry is we don’t want to push kids out
of the gate before they’re ready. A quick marriage is clearly more likely to
end in divorce and involve kids. That’s not good. Quick parenting? It makes it
difficult to attain your education and to work full time and build skills and
experiences that would help you over the long haul. That’s not good. A quick
departure from home means you have fewer resources to invest in your future.
Early departures from home are much more likely to result in poverty. That’s
A different generation
Q: Back to the main idea here. Why is it that today’s young adults
have such a bad rap?
A: Maybe it’s just that each
generation comes of age in its own time and what is true of one can’t easily be
applied to the next. It seems like a timeless theme in history that older
generations look down and think the younger one screwed up. What really matters
and what we hope to show in this book is just how different the world is
they’re trying to navigate, and it’s not just about personal choices. It’s
about these big forces that have changed the very landscape of life. We have to
not just point fingers at young people but also look at the things they’re
doing right and see what we can learn from them.