Who's a grown-up?

Sunday, November 2, 2003
Robbie Britt, 23, of Cape Girardeau got married in January and recently graduated from college. He works at a coffee shop and as a youth minister.

She's trying to fulfill her role as a productive citizen -- holding down a sales job and saving for a better future.

But a weak economy has left many college grads and young professionals such as Yaremko slowing their march to independence from the folks at home. But experts who track human development will tell you: The financial downturn is only the most recent factor pushing the start of adulthood later and later.

Gone is the notion that adulthood officially started at 18, when one typically graduated from high school -- or even 21, the modern-day age limit for drinking alcohol.

Rhett Browning, 30, who just closed a deal on a new house Thursday, is still waiting for adulthood to set in.

"I'll wake up one day and it will have happened," said Browning, who was living with his parents before his home purchase.

With people living longer, it seems to take longer for people to reach adulthood. Being an adult probably comes as a state of mind -- not an age or milestone, he said.

Now many experts and Americans agree. A University of Chicago survey, released earlier this year, found that most think adulthood begins at age 26.

"It's not like one day you wake up and you're an adult. It's much more gradual," says developmental psychologist Jeffrey Arnett. A professor at the University of Maryland, he is writing a book on what he calls "emerging adulthood" -- the period between age 18 to 25.

"The new life course has become much more spread out and flexible," Arnett says, noting the fact that many of today's young people are staying in school longer, marrying later and delaying having children.

The University of Chicago survey found that most people defined getting married and having children as markers for true adulthood. But even that doesn't ring true for many twentysomethings.

It did happen that way for Robbie Britt, 23. He's been married since January and recently graduated college. "I'm definitely an adult," he says. "I feel like it, but I don't act like it."

In part, the feeling of adulthood comes with responsibility, he says. Britt works 30 hours at Grace Cafe and part time as a youth minister. "With everything I'm taking on I feel like an adult."

But not everyone wants to reach adulthood. Some young people say their hesitation about marriage, family and home ownership comes from watching how others -- from parents to peers -- have responded to the usual trappings of adulthood.

"I've had a glimpse into their lives and realize what a change those things represent," 23-year-old Lisa Mixon says of friends who got married. "Many of them always feel rushed, are too busy to go out with friends -- and, well, aren't happy."

Sue Powell, right, helped her daughter, Amy, with her hair as Amy prepared for work recently. Amy, 22, is living with her parents in Clinton Township, Mich., while she works as a waitress and searches for a job in journalism.

For 22-year-old Amy Powell, reaching true adulthood would be as simple as getting a job that allowed her to move out of her parents' home in Clinton Township, Mich., a large suburban area a few miles northeast of Detroit.

"I'd be in my own little apartment, in a city with a job that puts my degree to use, paying my own bills, with nobody claiming me as a dependent," she says.

Whatever the factors that are causing it, much of society seems to be embracing the notion of delayed adulthood. And a whole line of increasingly common sayings are indicating a ripple effect -- "30 is the new 20" and "40 is the new 30" and so on.

Elaine Wethington, a sociologist in the department of human development at Cornell University, believes the sayings have a ring of truth.

However, there is an exception, she notes: The age that women start to become infertile has not increased.

"So women really need to think how they're going to fit children in. You can't just let it emerge," she says. "You have to plan for it."

On the other end of the spectrum, she's also noticed that the parents of her students are more reluctant than generations past to let go of their children.

"I'm 53 and I remember when I went to college, my parents considered me an adult. And I was pretty much on my own and allowed to make my own decisions," she says. "Today, I think parents at some level want the child to still be dependent a little bit longer, if they're going to keep paying the bills."

Features editor Laura Johnston contributed to this report.

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