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Is It Time To Extend Childhood?

Twenty-somethings are moving home in record numbers. It’s not just the recession. The “boomerang kid” trend started before the economy collapsed, and social scientists expect it to continue. These young adults aren’t just broke; they’re not ready to leave the nest. Does it just take longer to grow up today than it did a few generations back?

Some experts think so. The New York Times has a feature coming out this Sunday on “emerging adulthood,” a new psychological term for the increasingly common developmental stage between finishing high school and settling into Real Life.

If we can’t expect our kids to be fully adult until they’re 30, does that mean those of us raising little ones now are on the hook for another 10 years of parenting? What will our job description look like, if childhood is extended another decade?

What does it mean to be an adult? Per the NYT:

Sociologists traditionally define the “transition to adulthood” as marked by five milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child.

In the 70s, over three quarters of women had done all five of these things by their 30th birthday. Now, the number is less than half. For men, the drop is even more drastic: 65% of men in the 70s hit these milestones before turning 30. Now only a third do so.

Instead, young people are traveling, getting PhDs, competing for unpaid internships and having adventures. They move around a lot, avoiding commitments to careers or relationships. They’re taking time to find themselves before settling down.

How will we parent these people? By the time our kids are in their 20s, will living at home be the norm? Will I need to sign permission slips for my daughters to go on college field trips? Will social institutions have adapted to the special needs of young people who are really not ready to take on the work of having a home, family and career of their own at 20?

These questions matter because, to quote the Grey Lady again:

failing to protect and support vulnerable young people can lead them down the wrong path at a critical moment, the one that can determine all subsequent paths. But overprotecting and oversupporting them can sometimes make matters worse, turning the “changing timetable of adulthood” into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The question of whether and how to extend our kids’ formative years past the usual threshold of adolesence is a complex one. There are questions about their physical and mental maturity to grapple with, as well as ethical and sociological concerns.

I’d expect that by the time today’s kindergartners are old enough to vote, there will be more open discussion of this issue, but no clear consensus. Will my 5-year-old be an “emerging adult” in 20 years, or simply a grown-up? Only time will tell.

Photo: istolethetv

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