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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm John Ydstie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Today in Your Health: growing up. That is, when does a person really an adult?

In this country, legally, that's generally at the age of 18. But increasingly, studies show that in many of their minds and the minds of their parents, young people between 18 and 25 do not feel ready to take on adult responsibility, like marriage, children and permanent employment. And there's even a label for this period of development: emerging adulthood.

NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.

PATTI NEIGHMOND: Jeffrey Arnett coined the term emerging adult. Arnett's a developmental psychologist at Clark University who says a number of cultural changes over the past five decades created this lengthened path to adulthood.

Dr. JEFFREY ARNETT (Developmental Psychology, Clark University): Go back 50 years ago, the median marriage age for women in the United States is 20, and the median age of marriage for men is 22. And most of them had their first child within about a year.

NEIGHMOND: By their early 20s, back in 1960, Arnett says most people had chosen a life partner, finished their education, and were in a stable job if they were male and were full-time mothers if they were female.

Dr. ARNETT: Now, none of that is true anymore. Now, if you've heard of somebody who is 19 or 20 years old and was saying they're planning to get married, you'd think they were crazy because it's so unusual now for somebody to do that. Now, the median age of marriage for young women is 26, and it's 27 and a half for young men.

Mr. COLIN HERRON (Student, George Washington University): My name is Colin Herron. I'm 21 years old, and I'm a senior majoring in geography at the George Washington University.

Ms. LINDSAY TINGLEY (Law Student, Wake Forest University): My name is Lindsay Tingley. I'm 23, and I'm a law student at Wake Forest University.

NEIGHMOND: Both Herron and Tingley pretty much reflect the thinking of their generation.

Ms. TINGLEY: I'm not feeling like I'm in any rush. I think people get married a lot older these days, and they have kids later these days. And I know that I, myself want to have a career. I don't see myself getting married for another, I don't know, at least, four years or so - three or four years. Three to six sounds good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEIGHMOND: And when asked if they feel like adults, they say what most 20-somethings say: yes and no.

Ms. TINGLEY: I do have a roommate down at school. You know, I feel independent in that way. I have to make sure that my rent gets paid. I buy my own groceries, take care of my car, feel like I have adult relationships. You know, I'm responsible for getting my work turned in and staying on top of things. So in that way, I do.

NEIGHMOND: But complete financial autonomy? No way. Tingley's getting financial help from her parents and from school loans.

Ms. TINGLEY: I don't know a lot about investing. And I feel like that's something that, at my age, I should really start learning more about. And I certainly wouldn't know how to buy my own house at this point.

Mr. HERRON: The mere fact that I'm at school where I am is dependent entirely upon my parents, as it is now, because I have kind of the strings attached as far as school goes, loans go, and how I'm paying for school. That's what's kind of keeping me from fully entering what I would consider adulthood.

NEIGHMOND: And that's the other part of what psychologist Arnett calls the quiet revolution. The number of early 20-somethings in college has doubled over the past five decades. And today, there are more women attending college than men. Graduate school is more common, thereby increasing the length of time people spend preparing for adulthood.

Developmental psychologist Larry Nelson from Brigham Young University recently completed a study which appears in December's Journal of Family Psychology. Nelson surveyed 392 unmarried college students, and at least one of their parents.

Dr. LARRY NELSON (Developmental Psychologist, Brigham Young University): We wanted to know if parents considered their child, an l8 to 26-year-old child, to be an adult or not. And we found that over 80 percent of mothers and 80 percent of fathers answered, no, our child is not yet an adult.

NEIGHMOND: And it's not just financial ties. These young people are also emotionally close to their parents.

Again, Herron and Tingley.

Ms. TINGLEY: We have a really great relationship, actually. We're really close. You know, I don't talk to them about everything, but I feel like I could if I wanted to.

Mr. HERRON: There's certainly a security net in a sense of an emotional security net. I know that they're there. They certainly have let me know, as long as I can remember, that they will be there as long as they're alive for whatever I need.

NEIGHMOND: And those ties are very close.

A recent survey from the Pew Research Center shows 8 out of 10 young people surveyed had talked to their parents in the past day. Nearly three in four said they see their parents at least once a week.

What's that add up to? A generation that's closely connected to family, and one that's taking its time figuring out the future, which, according to psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, is not such a bad thing.

Dr. ARNETT: Once you take on these adult responsibilities, you're going to have them for life, pretty much. Once you make commitments in marriage and children and a long-term employ, you can't just leave those things because something interesting comes along. But in your 20s, you can. And so, I say more power to them.

NEIGHMOND: And much of this time experimenting with life is balanced on the other end, says Arnett, by a lifespan that continues to rise.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you can find more on young people's health at npr.org/yourhealth, including how to test toys for lead.

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