Here is the full transcript of professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s TEDx Talk: Why Does It Take so Long to Grow Up Today? at TEDxPSU conference. This event occurred on March 1, 2015.
Jeffrey Jensen Arnett – Professor of Psychology
I think we all agree that it takes longer to grow up today than it did in the past. That seems like a fairly uncontroversial statement, and it is backed up by a lot of facts.
So in 1960, if we take 1960 as a baseline year, relatively few people got any education beyond high school, if they even finished high school. And 40% of people didn’t even get that far. In 1960, the median marriage age was 20 for women and 23 for men. Now it’s 27 for women and 29 for men, and it is still rising. So a lot has changed in the course of the last 50 years in the lives of young people.
So much has changed in fact, that I propose that it is helpful to think of it as a new life stage of emerging adulthood in between adolescence and young adulthood. But why does it take so long to grow up now, so much longer than in the past? Why is there this new stage of emerging adulthood?
There are four revolutions that took place in the 1960s and the 1970s that set the stage in many ways for the society that we know today, including the new life stage of emerging adulthood. Those four revolutions are the technology revolution, the sexual revolution, the Women’s Movement, and the Youth Movement First, the technology revolution. The technology revolution is not just iPhones and iPads, or even laptops and the Internet.
Another huge technology revolution of the last 50 years has been a transition from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy. We’ve gotten so good at making things with machines that we no longer need so many people to make them. Most of us are also aware of how a lot of jobs in manufacturing have gone to other countries. But it’s not just that. Our manufacturing output is actually six times greater now than it was in the 1950s.
But we are able to do that with only half as many people. So gone are the days where a young man could walk in an automobile factory or a steel plant, and make enough money to support not only himself and his family. The new jobs in the knowledge economy are in information and technology and services. And all of these require education beyond high school. Those are where you get the best new jobs in the knowledge economy.
You have to have some kind of education beyond high school. So now more people get more education for longer than ever before. And that pushes everything else out because most people won’t get a stable long-term job for several years after they have finished their education, and most people prefer to wait for marriage and parenthood until after they have a stable job.
The second revolution is the sexual revolution. The invention of the birth control pill in 1964, along with other effective methods of contraception, broke the age-old link between sexuality and reproduction for the first time. And in turn, the link between sexuality and marriage became broken for the first time.
And so the marriage age started to go steadily up, even as the age of beginning first sexual relations went down. And today, most people begin having sexual relations in their late teens, a decade or more before they enter marriage and parenthood. And so that changes what the late teens and 20s are like.
Instead of entering the commitments of marriage and parenthood, people now have this longer spans of a decade or more when they are making a break in relationships, and they are not yet committed to the structure of family life.
Number three is the Women’s Movement. In 1960, not many people were going to college, but there were twice as many men as women who were college students. Today, 58% of undergraduates are female, only 42% male. And women are also half of the students in med schools, in law schools, in business schools. That has been truly revolutionary. And that has changed how young women think about their lives and plan their lives.
It’s hard for us to even imagine how much pressure there must have been on a young woman in 1960 to find a man. Because if you didn’t, what else were you going to do with your life? There weren’t really hardly any professions open to you. And so that was what they were most focused on, not that they can do anything. They, like young men, want to use most of their 20s for making progress in their education and then in their career. And that has changed entirely what the 20s are like for both young men and young women.
And finally, the Youth Movement. It used to be that adulthood was associated with a lot of good things, like social status and authority. Well, it still is to some extent, but not so much as it used to be. The 60s and the 70s changed that with the Youth Movement. “I hope I die before I get old”.
How many of you are old enough to remember that? Or “Never trust anyone over 30.” Those were said somewhat tongue in cheek, but only somewhat. Those are truths underlying them. Now adulthood and age became diminished, and it became youth that was venerated.
And so young people are no longer in such a hurry to enter adulthood. They preferred to prolong their youth as long as they could and enjoyed it while it lasted. So together, those four changes have resulted in this new life stage of emerging adulthood. It used to be that people set up the stable structure of an adult life by about age 20, but now it’s really true that 30 is the new 20. There’s a good reason why that phrase has become more popular.
Because now the transitions that used to happen around age 20 happen closer to age 30 for most people. Instead of moving from adolescence to young adulthood, at about age 20, it’s the adolescence and then emerging adulthood for most of the 20s, and then the entrance into a stable young adulthood follows. Not everybody is delighted to hear about the new life stage of emerging adulthood. Not everybody is happy that it takes longer to grow up than it used to. Quite the contrary, a lot of people are very unhappy about it.
And a lot of people think that the fact that young people enter these transitions of a stable adulthood later in the past means there must be something wrong with them. And their parents and grandparents can’t help but look at the progress or lack of it of their children and grandchildren toward adult life in their 20s and think, and maybe say, “When I was your age” Because the timetable has really changed, but I’d like to challenge you if you think that way today to try to think about it differently.
It doesn’t mean there is something wrong with them. It takes longer to prepare yourself for the knowledge economy than it did for a manufacturing economy, first of all. So that’s not their fault. They are very intently involved in preparing themselves for their world and are trying to find a place in a very complex economy.
Secondly, the Women’s Movement has opened up a huge range of opportunities for young women. But that is not a bad thing. I think few of us would view that as a negative development. It’s a good thing. It’s a great thing. And so, having this life stage of emerging adulthood, allows both young men and young women to develop their skills for the workplace.
There is also that wouldn’t most of us make a better choice of a marriage partner at 28, or 29, or 30, than we would’ve at 19, or 20, or 21? Wouldn’t most of us be a better parent if we begin at 30 or 31, rather than 20 or 21? I don’t think there is any doubt about that. There is also this. Having the space for emerging adulthood gives young people an unprecedented and unparalleled period of freedom. It’s a time when you can do things you never could do before when you were a kid, and you really won’t be able to do later.