am not a history buff, but I imagine that in the past it was easy, or at least easier than today, to discern when a child became an adult. There were rituals, or rites of passage, that set clear limits. Plus, a child had to pass through those rituals much sooner in life than we do. My fiancee’s grandmother, for instance, was married at 18 years old and was a mother at 20. Marriage has often been considered a marker of adulthood. She and many others from her generation had, from our perspective, clipped childhoods and prolonged adulthoods.
That is because the boundary lines that divide childhood from adulthood are ambiguous. What does it mean to be an adult, and how can you know you have entered into adulthood? I’m not completely sure, but I think it has something to do with independence and the ability to be responsible for and take care of yourself. Nobody suddenly looks around and says, “Wow, I’m grown up.” Even still, living on your own, earning your own wage and making your own decisions seem to be necessary features of adult life.
Why am I writing about this? Well, this question of when a child suddenly becomes an adult is something I’ve been questioning myself. My other graduating senior peers may have this question as well. Some of us may have found it difficult to visit home freshman year or even adjust to living at home again. We tend to change as people. Personally, I did not like being treated by my parents as if things had remained the same. Being parented like I was still a teenager didn’t feel right anymore. College brought out a new sense of liberty and freedom that I had never experienced before.
And yet, our generation might be the least adult generation in history. For legitimate reasons, a lot of us move back home after college and remain dependent on our parents. But even for those of us who won’t do that, I have noticed a lot of ways in which we tend to still depend on our parents. Who else do we call when we have car trouble or have to make a big purchase? To us, this seems normal. But for some context, a little less than a hundred years ago, my great-grandfather was running a farm in Pennsylvania when he was only 20.
The generational progression is strange but logical. We have moved from a generation of highly mature and independent people to a generation of not-so-independent people. And we all feel the complications this causes. We are at a point in our lives when young adults have usually moved into adulthood. We are supposed to want independence and to become adults we are meant to be. But our parents haven’t quite left the picture yet.
When college debt is still affecting most of us, and we all seem to be suffering from career choice anxiety, how could our parents not still be firmly planted in our lives? On the one hand, we want to be adults. But on the other, we have not attained adult status yet. A lot of psychological and sociological work has been done on whether a person’s 20s are just another extension of adolescence. Unlike past generations, people are getting married later and remaining in school for much longer.
In other words, responsibilities like marriage, parenting and working, which have traditionally defined adult life, are being done at a much later point in our lives compared to our parents or grandparents. There is greater freedom in not being “tied down” until much later. However, there is possibly a greater cost.
The longer we are free or not tied down, the longer we depend on our parents for finances, housing or emotional support. Delaying work and marriage may be construed as trophies of our autonomy and individuality, but they are actually a hindrance to complete independence. This creates a paradox: Those who delay the responsibilities of adulthood tend to have to depend on their parents or guardians. On the other hand, if you take up those socially recognized milestones of adulthood, you no longer depend on your parents. Therefore, more work means more independence.
Scott Stinson is a UF English senior. His column appears on Wednesdays.