The Chronicle Review

The New Adulthood

Timothy Cook for The Chronicle Review

March 30, 2015

Yes, it’s tougher to become — or to be — an adult today than it was half a century ago.

And yes, young and old alike regard adulthood with ambivalence. Young people are embarrassed and anxious by their prolonged dependence on their parents, but they also hate the idea of a mortgage, a disgruntled spouse, never-ending debt, and a life that binds them to a boring job.

Parents grumble about how long it takes their children to reach adulthood, complete their education, find a steady job, achieve financial independence, and start a family. But they don’t seem particularly happy with their own lives. Their schedules are too busy, their marriages too often sexless, their lives a constant rat race. So they spend a lot of time and money trying to turn back the clock.

Clearly "growing up" has lost its allure. That’s too bad — not because adulthood is dying, but because it’s never held so much potential.

Both its pitfalls and promises can be traced to the same development: There is no longer a clear script for adulthood. In our ever more individualistic culture, adults themselves have to give their life trajectories meaning and coherence. No wonder they’re anxious. But they also have opportunities that the men in gray flannel suits and women in pearl necklaces never had.

The word "adulthood" is of relatively recent vintage. In the second half of the 19th century, biologists, taxonomists, moralists, physicians, and social scientists defined the term in opposition to Romantic notions of childhood, youth, and later, adolescence. If a child was immature and vulnerable, and youth impulsive and rash, an adult was the opposite: settled and self-confident. Before, the terms that described that stage of life were simply "manhood" and "womanhood." The words made no pretense of being scientific.

During the first half of the 20th century, adulthood became synonymous with heterosexual marriage, parenthood, and adherence to rigid sex and family roles. It also involved, at least for the middle class, distinctive forms of dress, hair styles, demeanor, and self-presentation. The ideal middle-class man sported a hat, tie, suit coat, and a short haircut; the ideal woman, a full skirt, blouse or sweater or jacket with a feminine silhouette, sometimes accompanied by that pearl necklace. Cigarette smoking (or cigar smoking for men), cocktail drinking, and adult games like canasta, bridge, mahjong, and golf helped to set adults apart. Their culture and tastes dominated popular music, movies, and literature — Broadway show tunes, sentimental standards, big-band sounds, movies like George Cukor’s comedy-romances The Philadelphia Story (1940) or Adam’s Rib (1949), and books like How Green Was My Valley and Mrs. Miniver.

By the 1950s, people who had not married, borne children, bought a house, or taken a 9-to-5 job were denied the status of adulthood. Men who failed to achieve those supposed markers of maturation were stigmatized as immature, selfish, or latently or manifestly homosexual. To provide a sufficient income to support a family at a standard of living higher than their fathers had enjoyed, most men didn’t have to bother with college.

College students would serve as the pacesetters for developments that radically reshaped private life.

Women who failed to marry or bear children, preferably early, were commonly accused of denying their biological identity. In 1960, half of all women wed before they could legally buy a drink.

The transition to full adult status, at least for white people, took place early and abruptly, and it was a "once and for all" phenomenon. The notion of "all at once" adulthood (the phrase is the child psychologist David Elkind’s) was, of course, a product of the postwar economy, where for the first time working men were offered a shot at becoming adults through jobs that could provide for a family. But women, denied economic independence and encouraged to find meaning in motherhood and wifedom, were offered a definition of adulthood that explicitly required deference, dependence, and service to others — qualities that were deemed unbecoming in adult males.

Paradoxically, it was this very period that set the stage for a convergence of developments that would ultimately shatter our definition of conventional middle-class adulthood. Popular writers like John Cheever, Mary McCarthy, and John Updike presented their critique of American culture as a criticism of adulthood itself, associating it with regret, disappointment, workplace discontent, spousal estrangement, alienation from children, and suburban malaise (as in Richard Yates’s 1961 novel, Revolutionary Road).

At the same time, physicians and psychologists began to link adulthood to stress, hypertension, and depression, while cultural critics including Beat poets, maverick social scientists, and social critics like Edgar Z. Friedenberg, Paul Goodman, and Jules Henry launched stinging condemnations of the conformity, repressiveness, and conventionality that characterized middle-class adult life.

By the early 1960s, a vibrant youth culture presented an attractive alternative. Movies like Rebel Without a Cause (1955) blamed youthful problems on the failure of adults to give sound advice and direction. The Graduate (1967) blamed adults who tried to make young people conform.

Many of the social changes of the 1960s were unintended byproducts of the rush to adulthood in the previous era. As women married, bore their children earlier and spaced them closer together than any other generation in American history, more wives in their 30s became available to enter the paid work force. Thanks in part to frustrations over the definition of feminine adulthood in the 1950s, wives and mothers went to work in unprecedented numbers, even before feminism and the stagflation of the 1970s hastened the trend. Couples who had married too young sought divorces in record numbers, with the divorce rate doubling between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s.

Meanwhile, the rapid expansion of higher education contributed to the emergence of an independent stage of life after young people had left home but before they started their own families. College students would serve as the pacesetters for developments that radically reshaped private life, including unmarried cohabitation on an unmatched scale and openly gay and lesbian unions. The erosion of the once-and-for-all model of adulthood was accelerated and complicated by the end of the draft in 1973, the decline of unions and the resultant fall in real wages and job options for men without a college education, and the increasing entry of women into higher education.

Deconstruction is not simply an approach to literary interpretation. It is also an apt description of the social and cultural process that has reshaped every facet of life. What had seemed fixed and stable — whether nations like the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia or roles like the male breadwinner and female homemaker — proved mutable and transitory. Nowhere was that more vivid than in the crumbling of family and gender norms. Call it postmodern adulthood.

In stark contrast to the model that had reached its culmination in the decade and a half that followed World War II, growing up became gradual, incremental, and uneven. In a single lifetime, the definition of adulthood fragmented and left in its wake uncertainty, confusion, and a dizzying variety of dual-earner households, single-parent households, extended households, singles, cohabitating couples, same-sex and not, childless and not.

Anything but linear, the transition to adulthood is now also determined more and more by economics — and marked by social class. Gone are many of the middle-wage blue-collar jobs that had allowed an earlier generation of young men to achieve financial independence by their early or mid-20s. The shift to a knowledge economy requires a prolonged investment in education, but working-class Americans are far more likely than their middle-class counterparts to enroll in a two-year college or a for-profit institution, and never receive a degree.

Parents who can provide substantial financial support realize that in this new world — in which the average adult will experience 11 job changes and three different careers — young people need time to mature, build their résumés, and develop the character traits necessary for success: resilience, flexibility, and a willingness to take risks. The parents best able to provide that support are, of course, already affluent.

Yet even as it has become harder for young men without a college degree to get a job that could support a family, young adults without family obligations have new forms of entertainment and recreation that are relatively cheap. Casual jobs, temporary relationships, cohabiting, and partying offer an attractive alternative to those without much hope of a professional future or a temporary detour for those who do.

For some young people, the 20s, then, have become a decade of self-discovery and unprecedented opportunities to travel and to explore relationships and occupations. Or they are the decade in which young lives go awry, replacing adolescence as the most risk-filled decade in a person’s life, with high rates of binge drinking, unplanned pregnancies, and involvement in crime. By the mid-20s, a significant number of young people are seriously off-track. They haven’t graduated from high school or received a GED, or are entangled in the criminal-justice system, or disconnected from either jobs and education.

Even those who follow the new path to success often struggle. For too many students, college is a dead end, with roughly 40 percent of students at four-year institutions and two-thirds of those who start at a community college failing to earn a degree after six years. Once again, class divisions matter: In 2013, 77 percent of students hailing from the most affluent families (defined as earning $108,650 or more) had completed college by age 24; only 9 percent from the least advantaged families (making $34,160 or less) did so.

At the same time, couples have had to figure out how to meet heightened — and sometimes unrealistic — standards for intimacy, communication, and personal fulfillment, and many fail. More than half of adults today live in a single-parent household, cohabit outside of marriage, or reside in a blended household following a divorce. Midlife, too has become far less stable, characterized by increasingly frequent shifts in partners, family arrangements, and jobs.

The path through life is a winding road — without reliable maps.

But ambivalence about adulthood should not be confused with what some writers in recent years have decried as the "death of adulthood." Books like Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys, by Kay S. Hymowitz, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and The Death of the Grown-Up: How America’s Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization, by the conservative columnist Diana West, rail against video-game addicted boy-men who refuse to embrace the role of provider and authority figure; overindulgent parents who are desperate for their children’s love and have abdicated their responsibility for setting boundaries; "kidults" who refuse to "act their age," dress in inappropriate fashions, attend movies and read books aimed at adolescents, and spend their leisure in juvenile pastimes.

To such cultural critics, the increasing time it takes young people to marry and settle down reflects the emergence of a spoiled, self-indulgent generation of Peter and Princess Pans. Young people should take a job — any job — and marry early and stay married, even if they’re in unsatisfactory relationships.

The complainants have a point, even if it is inflated. Many young people, largely men, are having trouble fulfilling traditional obligations. But it makes no sense to try to channel them back to the 1950s, even if that were possible.

The fact is that the 1950s model of adulthood catapulted young people into extremely truncated and often disappointing lives. A few years ago, the family researcher Stephanie Coontz interviewed women of "the greatest generation." Many of them reported having felt trapped, but couldn’t imagine how to free themselves. As one woman said: "We thought: You’re fat at 40 and finished by 50." The soaring divorce rates of the late 1960s and 1970s were a direct product of the discontents "adulthood" had imposed on women. Men, too, were forced into one-dimensional identities, relegated to the role of breadwinner, pressured into stultifying conformity, and pushed to the margins of family life. And in that era, black and Hispanic people were never really recognized as full adults at all.

Like any other social and cultural transformation, the redefinition of adulthood involves trade-offs. Some observers worry that, as adult lives become less coherent and predictable, children suffer. But those fears are greatly exaggerated. By virtually every measure — height, weight (leaving aside, for the moment, the issue of obesity), dental health, even the size of their feet — children are doing better than they were 40 years ago, in spite of the increase in single-parent homes, unmarried cohabitation, and out-of-wedlock births. Today’s mothers — including working mothers and single mothers — spend more time interacting with their children than their homemaker counterparts did in the 1960s. Dads are far more involved. And an astonishing number of teenagers are doing better than before. Standardized-test scores are up, teen smoking and drinking are down, and violent juvenile crime has fallen to rates not seen since the early 1960s.

There have been huge improvements for adults as well. Women have won the opportunity to have meaningful careers, which, as the sociologists Adrianne Frech and Sarah Damaske recently showed, has a large positive benefit on their health. In contrast to "finished at 50," women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s can expect to have satisfying careers and enjoy the respect of those around them. Men have learned the satisfactions of taking more responsibility around the house and for children — and for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. They are at least as satisfied with their sex lives as conventional couples in the 1960s and 70s. The gap in health outcomes, once worse for single than married men, is disappearing.

There are other reasons to be upbeat. People are more active today in their 50s, 60s, and 70s than in the past. Parents have closer relations with their adult children. Meanwhile, young people who don’t jump into adult roles have an intellectual advantage over those who do.

Most of the problems associated with transitioning to a mature life come from the increasing economic insecurity and inequality of contemporary society. Making a college education more successful for the many students who drop out would certainly promote economic mobility. Universities have adopted a variety of strategies to meet the challenges of persistence and completion — summer success academies, mandatory academic orientations, freshmen learning communities, early-alert systems to identify students in trouble, supplemental instruction, providing incentives to take a full course load. The results, however, have been modest.

That’s why the discussion of creating broad access to college is about far more than just education. Designing curricular pathways with sequences of preselected courses, and providing one-stop student-support services, including financial aid, academic advising, and a writing center (available online) sound like topics for educational researchers. But they have proved effective in promoting completion among students for whom higher education has historically failed. That, in turn, has a major influence on how people negotiate adulthood.

Meanwhile, free or low cost childcare would benefit families when their incomes are lowest. More predictable schedules for part-time workers would allow parents to better organize their lives. An expanded Earned Income Tax Credit would greatly improve the economic well-being of low-income workers.

The issue, in other words, isn’t about how confusing the path to adulthood has become. It’s about what we can do to enable young people to take advantage of the freedom they have, now more than ever before, shed unhappy or unfulfilling personal relationships, follow a lifestyle that reflects their dreams and desires, and reinvent their lives at any age.

Steven Mintz is executive director of the University of Texas system’s Institute for Transformational Learning and a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. His book The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood is just out from Harvard University Press.