Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. Ephesians 4:14-15
When is one considered “grown up” or mature? Given the millennials propensity to have a prolonged adolescence into their late 20’s or early 30’s, this question has been rolling around in my head.
A recent article by Jenny Anderson in Quartz entitled “When it comes to sex, dating, and drinking, 18 is the new 15 for American teens” caught my eye because it is a trend of Generation Z, or those who are just now getting out of high school.
The title of Anderson’s article makes one pause and wonder what is going on. The actual quote “18 is the new 15” comes from Jean Twenge who is quoted in the article as saying: “In terms of adult activities, 18-year-olds now look like 15-year-olds once did.”
We have seen the prolonged adolescence of the millennials, but the regression of maturity of younger adolescents is something new. Twenge said that, unlike other generational trends which take years to surface, it occurred suddenly in 2012 when smartphones were owned by over 50% of the American population.
The human brain is described by researchers as plastic and that it doesn’t completely develop in humans until the middle 20’s. An 18-year-old might be able to vote or even drink alcohol in many states, but their brain is not yet fully developed.
Becoming an adult is no longer a good construct. Instead I am focusing on the term maturity. The typical markers of being an adult are when you have achieved the following: taking responsibility for yourself, making independent decisions, and becoming financially independent.
One may have settled down by marrying and having a family. Most other countries have similar criteria. In some, like China, the list gets extended by adding the ability to support parents, and in India, the ability to keep one’s family physically safe.
Adulthood (i.e. when you are an adult”) is probably more blurred than it has ever been, although historically, there have been periods in history where the trends were similar to today.
An anecdote may be appropriate: Henry graduated from Harvard, moved back in with his parents, and managed to land a teaching job even though it was during a recession. He quit teaching after two weeks and spent the next 12 years changing jobs and bouncing back and forth living with his parents, living alone or crashing with a buddy.
He published his first book at age 31, and the buddy he crashed with said he was “as full of buds of promise as a young apple tree?” His buddy’s name? Ralph Waldo Emerson. Who was Henry? Well, you might recognize Henry by his full name: Henry David Thoreau.
Henry’s path in young adulthood was not atypical in the 19th century. We may have bought into the “myth that the transition to adulthood was more seamless and smoother in the past” according to Steven Mintz, a professor of history at University of Texas at Austin.
Maturity is not just about the marks of adulthood, but the marks of social, emotional and intellectual achievement. Today’s youth are often advanced intellectually, but lag emotionally and socially.
Part of that is because they have been exposed to “information on everything from cyberspace to sexual techniques before they graduate from middle school. “Everything is coming to them sooner”, says Tim Elmore in Psychology Today. And it comes before their brains are equipped to handle it.
Tony Compolo, a Christian sociologist put it this way: “I am convinced we don’t live in a generation of bad kids. We live in a generation of kids that know too much too soon.”
The digital world – particularly after 2007 when the iPhone was introduced – has accelerated this trend giving the next generation unlimited information at their fingertips, but often at a time when their brains are not able to process it.
According to Elmore, scientists say that kids between the ages of 11-14 “lose some connections in the part of the brain that enables them to think clearly and make good decisions.” If you are a parent of one of these kids and are reading this, I can visualize you nodding your head in assent.
Brain researchers calls this “pruning” where the brain of a young adolescent changes that will “allow a young person to move into adult life effectively” much as a gardener trims a bush or a tree into a desired shape.
The frontal lobes of the brain which result in high level reasoning and decision-making don’t fully mature until the early or mid 20’s. Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, a neuroscientist at Harvard’s Brain Imaging Center, basically says that they are in-between being a child and an adult – their brain has been pruned, but the adult portion is not fully formed.
In other words, “they are informed but not prepared.” Other research on this topic basically says the same thing: Adolescents are being exposed to too much information at an early age when their brains are not capable of processing it.
Chronological age is not a good marker for maturity, yet it is something we often use for practical purposes. Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple says: “We all know people who are 21 or 22 years old who are very wise and mature, but we also know people [that age] who are very immature and very reckless.”
One positive finding: Anthony Burrow, a professor at Cornell, concluded in a study that for a young person to find his or her purpose in life was an important yardstick for a sense of well-being and a big step towards maturity and a sense of identity.
A May 2017, a study by Dean Soyean as part of APLUS (Arizona Pathways to Life Success for University Students) looks at adulthood, financial capability, goals and well-being of those approaching 30.
The study used the following role transitions by contemporary societies marking adult status:
- Completing education;
- Finding work
- Leaving the parental home;
- Forming committed relationships
- Becoming a parent.
The data suggests that today’s millennials are far more educated than those 50 years ago, having four times the number of college degrees. Finding work, particularly in the U.S., has been difficult due to recession and a slow recovery since 2008, but recent declines in unemployment has improved this factor.
As for leaving the parental home, the data showed that more young adults are reported living with their parents than at any other time in the past 130 years. Somewhere between 26 and 30% of young adolescents under 30 still live with their parents.
As for the third yardsticks – forming committed relationships – the studies provide some insights, but the data is not clear whether millennials are just postponing marriage or foregoing it entirely. On this latter point, another 2015 study recently came out which makes one wonder where marriage (and family) are going.
Mark Regnerus in the Wall Street Journal wrote an article entitled “Cheap Sex and the Decline of Marriage.” In it, a 24-year-old from Colorado said he wasn’t interested in marriage ““because I am not done being stupid yet. I still want to go out and have sex with a million girls.” Sadly, he has a lot of company.
Marriage, as an institution, is now in danger. In 2000, the number of married 24 to 35 year olds exceeded their never-married counterparts by 55% to 34%. By 2015, those ratios have reversed.
The article debunks some thinking that the poor economy has had something to do with the marriage rates, but their study showed otherwise. Also, the studies alos debunked the idea of men’s fear of commitment as having nothing to do with the trends.
Instead, sex has become “cheap” where many women expect little in return for sex. There is no demand for fidelity, time, attention or commitment. Therefore, men do not feel obliged to supply these “goods” as in the past.
I sent the WSJ article to Paula Rinehart, a Christian author and counselor, and she noted that it was worrisome, but that “the decline was predictable.”
Elmore, in his article in Psychology Today, notes that there are signs to look for in maturity. It is a person who has these traits:
- Ability to keep long-term commitments
- Ability to be unshaken by flattery or criticism
- Possesses a spirit of humility
- Decisions are made on character, not feelings
- A mature person consistently expresses gratitude
- Ability to prioritize others before themselves
- Seeks wisdom before acting
This is a good list to remember when interacting with the next generation, because, as a mentor, you can evaluate the mentee’s progress in each area.
I’ve covered a lot of waterfront on this topic; more than I intended to, to be honest. The trends are not happy ones. The decline of marriage leads to a decline of having a family, which in several studies was the most common response as to the event where an adolescent felt like they were mature and were an adult.
The challenge is enormous, and apparently, if these trends are considered, getting larger. The next generation is flailing around, often with no defined purpose to their life.
That’s where a mentor can step in and provide wise counsel helping them to figure out why God has put them here on earth. From that juncture, a mentor can assist the mentee as to how to go about accomplishing His purpose for their lives.
MENTOR TAKEAWAY: Mentors are uniquely poised to stand in the gap for a mentee when it comes to finding purpose in life. Our role is not to tell them their purpose, but lead them through self-discovery to find it on their own.
FURTHER STUDY: Jenny Anderson’s article in Quartz: https://qz.com/1081196/when-it-comes-to-teen-sex-dating-and-drinking-teens-are-doing-much-less-of-it/
Jean Twenge’s Article in the Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/
The history of adulthood by Seven Mintz entitled “The Prime of Life” is available at Amazon.
The Atlantic Article on “When are You Really an Adult?” by Julie Beck (January 6, 2016): https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/01/when-are-you-really-an-adult/422487/
Article by Tim Elmore in Psychology Today entitled “The Marks of Maturity” (subtitled “Artificial Maturity”): https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/artificial-maturity/201211/the-marks-maturity
Research on Young Adult Maturity and Growth from the University of Wisconsin-Madison: https://sohe.wisc.edu/aplus-project-research-on-young-adult-maturity-growth/
Wall Street Journal Article on Cheap Sex and the Decline of Marriage:
RESOURCES: Andy Crouch’s book The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in its Proper Place is available from Amazon.
Tim Elmore’s Book Generation iY: Secrets to connecting with Today’s Teens and Young Adults in the Digital Age is available from Amazon.
WORSHIP: Listen to Vertical Church Band play one of my favorites – I’m Going Free (Jailbreak): Vertical Church Band – I’m Going Free (Jailbreak) – with lyrics – YouTube
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