Parenting Trend: Are Our Kids Delaying Adulthood?


The Washington Post published an article a couple of weeks ago about some interesting downward trends in the lives of teenagers. Here are the basic numbers:

“Between 1976 and 1979, 86 percent of high school seniors had gone on a date; between 2010 and 2015, only 63 percent had, the study found. During the same period, the portion that had ever earned money from working plunged from 76 percent to 55 percent. And the portion that had tried alcohol plummeted from 93 percent between 1976 and 1979 to 67 percent between 2010 and 2016.

Teens have also reported a steady decline in sexual activity in recent decades. The portion of high school students who’d had sex fell from 54 percent in 1991 to 41 percent in 2015, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

The article also goes into a possible reason why this could be happening:

“According to an evolutionary-psychology theory that a person’s “life strategy” slows down or speeds up depending on the person’s surroundings, exposure to a “harsh and unpredictable” environment leads to faster development, while a more resource-rich and secure environment has the opposite effect, the study said.”

The comments on the article are fascinating. Most comments are by parents of teens and and compare what the article says to anecdotal evidence in their own children’s lives. Some people feel like seeing these numbers go down is a great trend, and others wonder if their kids won’t be prepared for adulthood. Still others feel like the article really missed the whole point and see the downward trend happening for very different reasons that the article suggests.

Personally, I had a mixed response to the article. Seeing the rates of alcohol use go down seems like a positive thing to me. The stat that human brains are still forming until age 25 — with good judgement being the last thing to develop — has been ever present in my brain since I started parenting teens. And I’ve also read the risk of becoming alcoholic drops considerably if someone doesn’t start drinking until after age 25. So if teens and young adults can avoid alcohol until their brains fully form, that sounds good to me.

The driving trend I recognize — my kids and their friends don’t have the urgency to drive that me and my friends had as teens. But I attribute it more to having better transportation options than I had as a kid. (And in rural areas, where alternative transportation options are inconsistent or unavailable, I think driving is still a priority for teens.) But I see the not-having-paid-work as a different issue. Among the Oakland teens I know, the opportunity for paid work is still of great interest. Every teen I know likes to earn money and is willing to take a job. The difference I see is that now, for many teens, we fill their lives with so many extra-curricular activities that they simply don’t have any hours left for a job.

As far as teen sex goes, if lower numbers mean less pressure to have sex before someone is ready, avoiding STDs, and  less teen pregnancy, then I’m fully on board.

What’s your take? Did you get a chance to read the article? Have you seen these trends in your own teens, or in the teens you know? If yes, what do you attribute the changes to? And do you see these downward trends are positive or negative (or some of both)? I’d love to hear.

P.S. — Do you have a driver’s license?

18 thoughts on “Parenting Trend: Are Our Kids Delaying Adulthood?”

  1. That article struck me as a pretty extreme case of the “millenials (and younger) are ruining everything” syndrome. If rates of alcohol use and sex had gone up, it would have been about how kids these days have no sense of responsibility. Since they’re going down, it’s about how these things are integral to adulthood, and kids these days have no sense of responsibility. I’m with you that it seems fairly positive that alcohol use and sex are being delayed. If those trends are accompanied by increased social isolation, that’s something to think about, but surely not occasion for immediate hand-wringing.

    I think what these trends show is that adulthood and the milestones to adulthood are starting to look different than they did twenty or thirty years ago. Which is not that surprising, and we don’t know yet what it really means.

  2. First, I think many of these things are good, and I’m a little baffled about why the authors think they aren’t good when society has put considerable time, money and effort towards things like promoting that drugs are bad etc. Second, I’m not sure they really presented a compelling argument for how these trends are all connected. Correlation isn’t causation. Lastly, they seem to be simplifying matters and also presenting things in a good/bad scenario that I’m not sure exists.

    If these trends are connected (which they might be since we didn’t get a reason one way or the other), the authors of the study argue that it means high school kids are delaying the on-set of adulthood and adult experiences. Firstly, that’s not a bad thing. Or a good thing. Its a different thing. We tend to want things to be the same as we remember them being and can get negative towards things that change (see all the articles about how millennials are killing the cereal industry etc. etc.) But there is a lot that is quite different and more change is happening at an exponential rate. The society we live in probably contributes to a lot of it (everything from the assertion that kids have more homework than their parents did to larger shifts such as increased automation of jobs, especially jobs that used to be filled by blue-collared workers).

    Both college professors and high school teachers I know have been saying that the kids today are less mature than they were 10 years ago, and/or less ready (which may or may not be true. People are bias).If so- Maybe rather than wishing kids become Rebels without a Cause, we need to look at how to change with the shifts in dynamics.

    1. I agree that college-aged kids are different than 10 years ago. I am an adjunct professor at a small liberal arts college, and I took 5 years off. I just went back this year, and I see a noticeable difference from the students of 5 years ago. They are now more worried about mental health and aren’t afraid to show how close they are to their parents. They seem more naive and dependent on their parents. And these are the students who moved away from their parents, some of them thousands of miles away. I wonder what it’s like for those who don’t move away?!?

  3. Lucinda Santiago

    Although I agree with your overall view on this…it also concerns me. Some of these statistics are due to communication being so tech centered. Kids aren’t interacting face to face as they used to. While it’s great from the aspect of kids having sex later and maybe even hanging out drinking less (although that wasn’t measured specifically), I just wonder if it is also due to kids just not talking as much. I know my teen and pre-teen communicate via text far more than phone and the good ol’ fashioned “hang-out in someone’s bedroom talking about life” that I enjoyed. The result is that my kids do not appreciate nuance in conversation, spontaneous quipper jests, and, perhaps most important, careful sarcasm versus hurtful words. Those are learned at an after school job, talking with the member of the opposite sex, and just hanging out (far more than even team sports where things are very directed). About the driving…well I drive my kids around about 4 hours a day and they hear me harangue them enough to know that about 8 hours in to being 16 they will be at the DMV whether they’re interested in driving or not. Our public transportation (St Louis) is abysmal.

    1. I totally agree with your comment, especially the part about driving. My daughter turned 16 a couple of months ago and I made sure she got her license, even though she would have preferred to wait. Now I make her drive to school even though (again) she would prefer for me to pick her up. Getting a license doesn’t mean you’re a good driver, it just means you’re safe enough to be on the road. It’s the first year of constant, repetitive driving that makes you competent and safe. Putting off getting licensed just delays that even more. I don’t want to push my kids out of the nest, but I’m definitely nudging and bumping them along.

  4. I feel the stistics in the article were very limited because the data did not include the unprecedented role opiate and heroin addiction has had on our adolescent populations. While addictions has been very scary to a segment of this age group, it has laid claim on a large number of them.

    1. Lucinda Payne Santiago

      And pot isn’t really covered either. I think a lot of kids smoke weed before drinking…doesn’t really impact the long-term impact but may play a role in less alcohol consumption earlier on.

  5. Because I’m old as dirt, these are my observations.

    Back when I was a kid, I was the only kid with two working parents, so most of the kids my age had someone there constantly teaching them *how* to grow up. (There a zillion arguments about the way we were raised, but I’ll let that go for another day). When *I* was rearing our generation of kids, things began to change rapidly, almost all the moms *needed* to work to just get by, so a lot of the parenting and day to day teaching was pared down to basics and necessities. And now we have that next group coming up in the same situation; and *I* see a partial reason/pattern.

    Very often articles in my feeds relate to “Adulting”, and not being able to do it today! I think back in the stone age, there were plenty of days, had that phrase been a thing, when my parents would have worn that shirt as well. That being said, they did know *how*. In our house, a tad progressive for back then, all the kids were made to learn cooking, sewing, taking care of the yard and cars, blah blah blah… which meant by the time we left the house at the expected age of 18, we had some skills under our belt that helped us feel confident. Schools also had ‘electives’ which taught basic life skills, ‘home ec’, ‘life skills’, ‘basic econ’, etc. all prepared kids with a semester of learning how to, essentially, rent an apartment, run a house and budget, and cook and clean well enough to keep yourself alive. These classes have been replaced with other life skills needed for independence in our current society, computer skills, networking, how to obtain scholarships, etc.

    So long story longer, *my* theory is that no one is necessarily to blame except American trickle down economics, progress in technology, and curiousity- there just isn’t enough time in the day to teach these kids how to sew, mend, iron, cook, fix a car, get a real job, code a computer, build a website, make networks, and manage multimedia situations necessary for anything now. Add that to a second generation of parents who weren’t automatically taught and made to perform “adulting” in practise throughout their High School careers, had lifestyles that afforded conveniences like dining out often, and these kids are living in an “Adulting” deficit – a high percentage of these kids are even seeing/witnessing basics in action.

    The Curiosity: Back in our day, sex wasn’t even a thing people could talk about, so it was this huge secret that only adults understood, same with alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, etc. so yes, the curiosity was HIGH… ding! (SEX! DRUGS! ROCK AND ROLL!) Cars were a BIG deal -especially muscle cars, so there was that “cool” factor. Now pretty much all of that is very out there, talked about discussed openly and often and without filters, so kids may be like “big flip” (insert yawn), no curiousity, less ‘problems’ with it all.

    I have no idea how to “fix” it, if it needs fixing.

  6. I would love to see the correlation between the stats this article states about teens having less sex and the advent of online porn. We have kids (kids!) with access to an enormous buffet of all kinds of porn … most of it for free and right in their hands on a phone or tablet. Personally, I’ve seen my teen having more and more explicit text conversations with guys and girls. We have lots of conversations about this with her, but that’s simply not something we had to deal with as teenagers.

  7. On the same note, I feel like I know WAY more people living with their parents for MUCH longer. It seems like almost everyone moved out around 18/19 to either go to college or start renting their own place and working an hourly job (or traveling!), and now I know MANY, MANY people who live with their parents either during or after college, and often late into their 20’s or 30’s.

    Surely many pros and cons to this arrangement, but I think it’s part of the same trend.

    1. I also see this, and it concerns me on two different angles. One, a young adult who just doesn’t feel comfortable living away from “home” or on their own, and two, those who would love to live on their own but just cannot afford it. I know folks in both of these scenarios.

      Housing costs along with wages seem SO disproportionate that it can be highly risky for someone to purchase a home *or* rent. In 1976, when I graduated HS, we were told we could afford a house equal to our annual income, if we made $24k per year, we could afford a $24k house, and it was commonly thought this was obtainable if one stuck to a budget. Anyone out there in commentland living in a house that costs the same as their annual income now? Laws allowing outsourcing to other countries, or that benefit employers who create only part time instead of full time jobs -even in white collar situations, low/unlivable minimum wage, wages not keeping up with cost of living, and gentrifications of neighborhoods are creating hostile conditions for young adults who would love to be independent, yet struggle just to get by on their wages, often working 2-3 jobs.

  8. Today I learned that home prices in my neck of the woods went up 2.8% last month: That number doesn’t sound so bad, until you break it down and find that just to keep your down payment savings at the same level as before–never mind getting ahead on your savings–you’d need to put away about $273 per *day*. We rent, and at that rate we’ll definitely be renting for the rest of our lives.

    I don’t know what adulthood will look like when my son is a teenager, when even his well-off parents can’t expect to accomplish some of the basic adult milestones themselves. All I can do is teach him to be kind to others and how to be an effective self-learner and hopefully he’ll be able to muddle through.

  9. I have definitely seen that teens are delaying adulthood. We can also track the rising marriage age too. And I agree with everything that has been said above…the effects of social media, online pornography and technology

    I’d like to add in two thoughts that came to mind. First, there’s huge service industry that didn’t exist when we were young. Now everything can be ordered at the click of a button like amazon, uber and food delivery. If one is inconvenienced or nervous about performing a task, the situation can easily be remedied by a handy app!

    Second, I would like to see the effects of increased levels of helicopter parenting. When I was young, my parents threw me out of the house to “go play outside”. This resulted in situations where I was forced to explore, use my imagination or solve my own problems. Today we have supervised playdates and so many scheduled activities. Kids are pretty much given a weekly itinerary for their entire childhood. We can hardly blame them for not being proactive when we adults have scheduled so much for them (with good intentions naturally)

    That being said, I don’t think these changes can be looked upon as entirely negative. Social behaviors are in an constant state of flux. It’s unavoidable and we just have to learn how to adapt. I remember when cynical Generation X was touted as the end of all civilization. Now experts call us a balancing force. Ha! Take that! And get off my lawn while you’re at it! :)

  10. I too think the overuse of smartphones, computers, etc. is a part of this trend, a big part. Kids aren’t seeing each other as much or having actual conversations unless it’s via texting. My son R. , 15, went to the gym with his twin brother and a friend. His brother and friend were waiting for him to get out of the locker room so they could go home. A couple of girls who had seen the boys earlier, came up to my son D. who was waiting for his brother and asked for R.s phone number. D. said he doesn’t have a cell phone but he could give her our home number. The girl looked disappointed and then said, “oh, well, no thanks” and then left with her friend. The message here is, if I can’t text you I won’t bother getting to know you. Something similar happened later too. Kids, and adults, seem to be getting a bit of a phobia for voice to voice communication. Whatever it is, there’s more to this trend than good. I read a related article about this, only it included a rise in teen suicides as a result of feelings of exclusion; seeing on social media that you didn’t get invited to a party where all of your friends are, proof posted in photos of the events for all to see. Back in the 90s when I was in high school, I only knew if I wasn’t invited to a party if I heard about it from a couple of people. Somehow that way of hearing about it didn’t effect a person as the social media word would. We’ll see where this goes, but really, parents have to (myself included) step it up and really be on top of things. No just-let-him-play-on-his-tablet-because-at-least-he’s-calm child care.

  11. The only concern that these statistics raise for me is whether kids are having a sufficiently gradual launch into adulthood. I am very happy that fewer kids are drinking, smoking, having sex, and engaging in other potentially risky behaviors. But I’d be interested in the same statistics for college students and other young adults. Once kids are away from home, are they plunging into alcohol, drugs, and sex at the same rate they were 20 years ago? If so, I’d argue that the new state of affairs is a little bit concerning because it means kids are jumping over a cliff into adulthood instead of gradually getting there. I don’t think this means that high schoolers need to be introduced to all these “adult” behaviors sooner, but rather that we need to think about college students and how we might help them ease into adulthood if they aren’t prepared to be on their own yet.

  12. Is it possible that teens are just exposed to different things? As a teacher that is observing pre-teens, I must say, the temptations are different. I am hopeful that with more knowledge about STDS it also means that kids are having less sex. However, I fear that when they do choose to have sex it is not healthy (too focused on expectations from porn). In addition, I don’t think they are drinking as much because that is just not the drug of choice. Marijuana is becoming more and more accepted in our society and I think kids are trying that over alcohol. It can be problematic to a developing mind as well. I also think that pill popping is on the rise (I taught in WV before moving overseas to teach) and that might be more of a problem that drinking was.

    I don’t have any statistics to support my thoughts, but I just think kids are interested in different stuff than we might have been when we were growing up. I was a teen in the early 90’s and I felt it was important to have a job. I hope that will also be important to my kids one day too. I don’t plan to pay for everything for the rest of their lives! It will be interesting if we continue overseas though, because I can’t really expect them to get a job in another country…hmm, things to ponder.

  13. I think there is a big difference in how urban teens, like those in the article, and small town/country teens behave. My town has virtually no public transportation, and driving is still a big deal for kids here, definitely something to look forward to. The expectation here is that kids will get some sort of job once they are old enough, even if it is just babysitting. We also have a substantial migrant population, so my kids have friends who are working in fields at an early age. As the mother of a high schooler and a middle schooler, I am all for their delaying sex and alcohol, although I would hate to think that they are replacing it with online porn or opiates. I feel like this “delaying of adulthood” is primarily a white, upper middle class phenomenon too, and maybe that should have been addressed in the article. Many kids don’t have the luxury of putting off paid work.

  14. During orientation weekend at my daughter’s university, I learned that kids are maturing much later than we did. It used to be that kids entered adulthood around 20 to 21. Now, the same maturation takes place around age 26 or later. Technology is behind some of this. The speaker called the cell phone the “world’s longest umbilical cord.” I think that’s so true!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top