Why Today’s Teens Are Taking Longer to Grow Up

Why Today’s Teens Are Taking Longer to Grow Up

When I turned 16, I couldn’t wait to get my driver’s license. I got my first job working part time at a popular clothing store, and at the age of 17, I moved to New York to attend New York University. All of my friends had similar behaviors and aspirations. It was always “What college are you going to?”, never “Are you going to college?”

But with my two teenagers, ages 18 and 19, it was a whole new world. Neither of my children showed any interest in getting their drivers license and both waited until they were 18. I have hardly ever seen my kids doing homework or studying. My 19 year old daughter is putting off college to live in Israel and work on a Kibbutz for 6 months to a year, and then moving to another state for a year to live with friends and “just enjoy being a kid for a while”. My 18 year old is refusing to study for the SAT and will start working “soon”.

I had a boyfriend by 9th grade and spent all of me free time with him. Neither of my children started dating until the age of 17 and spent time with friends and family instead.

What the heck is going on around here! I raised both of my children the same as I was raised, and I started saving for a college pre paid account the year they were born. As I talked with other parents who have children this age, they reported similar findings. Parents of teenagers still living at home, putting off college and a career and in no hurry to grow up. So I started doing research on what they refer to as the “I generation”. Kids who grew up in a world where the iPhone always existed and cannot imagine a time when they did not have that instant access to anyone and everything without leaving the house. So, here are some of my findings and what I found out was absolutely fascinating!

A New Culture…A Slower Path

Are today’s teens taking longer to grow up than we did?

Working, driving, drinking alcohol, having sex and dating have one thing in common: They are all activities adults do. This generation of teens, then, is delaying the responsibilities and pleasures of being an adult.

Adolescence – once the beginning of adulthood – now seems to be an extension of childhood. It’s not that teens are more prudish or lazy. They are simply taking longer to grow up.

Looking at these trends through the lens of “life history theory” might be useful. According to this model, whether development is “slow” (with teens taking longer to get to adulthood) or “fast” (getting to adulthood sooner) depends on cultural context.

A “slow life strategy” is more common in times and places where families have fewer children and spend more time focusing on each child’s growth and development. This is a good description of our current culture in the U.S., when the average family has two children, kids can start playing organized sports as preschoolers and preparing for college can begin as early as elementary school. This isn’t a class phenomenon; It was found that the trend of growing up more slowly doesn’t discriminate between teens from less advantaged backgrounds and those from wealthier families.

According to a recent study published in the journal Child Development, American adolescents are waiting longer than past generations to participate in activities associated with adulthood.

Researchers from San Diego State University and Bryn Mawr College analyzed four decades worth of data from seven nationally representative surveys of adolescents in the United States.

They found that in recent years, fewer adolescents are working for pay, driving, going out without their parents, drinking alcohol, dating, and having sex than in previous decades.

Since the early 1990s, for example, the percentage of high school students who work for pay has dropped from 57 percent to 32 percent among 10th graders. It’s dropped from 72 percent to 55 percent among 12th graders.

According to a recent study published in the journal of Child Development, American adolescents are waiting longer than past generations to participate in activities associated with adulthood.

Parental Investment Has Increased

Are teenagers less likely to participate in activities associated with adulthood because they’re busier with homework and extracurricular activities?

Researchers found that time spent on homework and extracurricular activities has declined among 10th graders. It’s remained relatively steady among 12th graders.

On the other hand, internet usage has increased. This might account for some of the changes.In fact, one documentary labeled today’s teens as screenagers.

“Greater parental investment leads to teens growing up more slowly because parents supervise children and teens more carefully and organize their activities,” Jean Twenge, PhD, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and lead author of the study, told Healthline.

The study researchers also found an association between a slower developmental trajectory and smaller family size, higher parental age at first birth, and higher median income.

With fewer children and more money, parents can invest more time and resources in their kids. This may allow them to follow a slower developmental path.

“There are also economic factors. With shifts in the economy, more people go to college and are dependent on their parents for longer. That also engenders more careful nurturing with the idea that education will last longer,” Jean continued.

Other researchers have also highlighted the role of economic and education changes in shifting patterns of adolescent and adult behavior.

For example, Jeffrey Arnett, PhD, research professor of psychology at Clark University in Massachusetts, has found that 18- to 29-years-olds spend more time getting educated, marrying later, and having children later than previous generations.

“There are a lot of things involved, as there is in any big social change, but part of it is the economic change from a manufacturing economy to what’s been called a knowledge economy,” Arnett told Healthline.

“It takes longer to prepare yourself for a place in the economy, and so people stay in education longer. They usually go through a series of short-term jobs in their 20s before they settle into a stable career path, and that partly contributes to making the marriage age later and the age of having your first child later,” he continued.

Arnett suggested that the decline in adult activities among younger adolescents fits into this larger picture of people growing up more slowly and entering adulthood later.

Teens May be Safe But Less Prepared

According to Twenge, there are benefits and drawbacks to the decline in adult activities among adolescents.

On the upside, teens are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. They’re more likely to wait until they’re ready to participate in adult activities.

On the downside, they may arrive at college or work without much experience making their own decisions and leading independent lives.

Arnett considers the slower developmental path of today’s teens to be largely positive.

“Things like unprotected sex, alcohol and most other substance use, and crime rates have gone way down among adolescents. Another thing that’s really gone down is rates of automobile accidents, especially in the last 10 years,” he said.

“And I think it’s pretty clear that a lot of that is explained by what Twenge is reporting here. You have fewer kids getting their license right away at 16 or even 17 or 18. They’re not in as much of a hurry to do that because they’re spending more time at home and their parents are more willing to drive them where they want to go,” he explained.

“Now that’s a big thing, to have automobile fatalities go way down, and it’s an example of why we should celebrate this. Giving kids more time to make their way gradually into adulthood is a good thing in many ways,” Arnett noted.

Source: The Conversation by Jean Twenge 2018

Is growing up slowly good or bad?

Life history theory explicitly notes that slow and fast life strategies are adaptations to a particular environment, so each isn’t inherently “good” or “bad.” Likewise, viewing the trends in teen behavior as “good” or “bad” (or as teens being more “mature” or “immature,” or more “responsible” or “lazy”) misses the big picture: slower development toward adulthood. And it’s not just teens – children are less likely to walk to and from school and are more closely supervised, while young adults are taking longer to settle into careers, marry and have children.

Adulting” – which refers to young adults performing adult responsibilities as if this were remarkable – has now entered the lexicon. The entire developmental path from infancy to full adulthood has slowed.

But like any adaptation, the slow life strategy has trade-offs. It’s definitely a good thing that fewer teens are having sex and drinking alcohol. But what about when they go to college and suddenly enter an environment where sex and alcohol are rampant? For example, although fewer 18-year-olds now binge-drink, 21- to 22-year-olds still binge-drink at roughly the same rate as they have since the 1980s. One study found that teens who rapidly increased their binge-drinking were more at risk of alcohol dependence and adjustment issues than those who learned to drink over a longer period of time. Delaying exposure to alcohol, then, could make young adults less prepared to deal with drinking in college.

The same might be true of teens who don’t work, drive or go out much in high school. Yes, they’re probably less likely to get into an accident, but they may also arrive at college or the workplace less prepared to make decisions on their own.

Even with the downsides in mind, it’s likely beneficial that teens are spending more time developing socially and emotionally before they date, have sex, drink alcohol and work for pay. The key is to make sure that teens eventually get the opportunity to develop the skills they will need as adults: independence, along with social and decision-making skills.

Source: Healthline

For parents, this might mean making a concerted effort to push your teenagers out of the house more. Otherwise, they might just want to live with you forever.


I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with over 20 years working in Community mental Health. I currently Supervise the Behavioral Health Benefit for an insurance company. I speak publicly on issues that affect mental health in the workplace.

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