When Do You Really Become An Adult? It’s Complicated

But you’re still so young.
Anyone in the struggle of trying to figure out why certain parts of your life aren’t anchored the way you thought they’d be has heard this, usually from a well‑meaning older person trying to convince you your life is not as big a mess as you’re sure it is (no one younger than you would say this). Sometimes you might even hear it in your own head as a pep talk, when you’re looking in the mirror, wondering who the reflection in front of you is going to become, or while you’re lying in bed, finding it hard to get up.
But you’re still so young.
You have time.
Keep going.
In the 1950s, sociologists identified five milestones that mean a person has fully transitioned into adulthood. They are (1) completing school, (2) leaving home, (3) becoming financially independent, (4) marrying, and (5) having a child. In general, in the 1950s and for decades afterward, these milestones were completed by the early thirties at the latest. They were often achieved even sooner, in the late teens or early twenties. In 1975, US Census data shows that 45 percent of women and men had attained the traditional markers of adulthood by the time they reached thirty‑four.
But today, cultural shifts and economic turmoil have changed both whether these milestones feel necessary and if they are attainable. “Many [young people] have not become fully adult yet—traditionally defined as completing school, landing a job with benefits, marrying, and parenting—because they are not ready, or perhaps not permitted, to do so,” sociologist and University of Pennsylvania professor Frank F. Furstenberg Jr. wrote in a 2004 report examining what it means to become an adult in America today, research funded by the MacArthur Foundation. In 2016, according to census data, just 24 percent of women and men had completed these milestones by the time they reached thirty-four.
We start working only after finishing the advanced degrees we’re told we need to compete in an information‑based economy (and, in many cases, accumulate substantial debt while doing so). We have less financial stability than young people before us, due to many factors, including school debt, the modern gig economy, stagnant wages, and repeated economic upheaval, caused by the 2008 financial crisis and, most recently, the coronavirus pandemic. We return to our parents’ homes after we thought we left for good, either because we can’t afford our own places or because we’re not sure yet where our dreams will take us. We marry at our own pace, if at all. And, if we decide we want children, we try to have them when we feel ready, a delay driven by women’s wider range of career options as well as assisted reproductive science that can make childbearing possible past our most fertile years.
“The timetable of the 1950s is no longer applicable,” Furstenberg wrote.
It’s true that we do have time, and we’re taking it. Tom W. Smith, who, for four decades, directed the General Social Survey, a large sociological data‑gathering project run by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, thinks the age of completing school, getting married, and having kids is only going up. “I do think it has to hit a plateau, but I don’t think it has hit that yet,” he says. “In another ten or twenty years, we’re not going to be talking about this as a delay. We’ll be accepting this as the normal trajectory.”                     
 But what’s implicit in anyone telling you “But you’re still so young” is the idea that eventually you’ll get to some sort of standardized adulthood. We’re told to follow these kinds of timelines, that if we do we will be happy with our lives. Shaking them up, either by rejecting certain milestones, or accepting that we may not be able to achieve them, goes against what we’re taught. These markers are supposed to be some sort of an end. When we arrive at them, we will know what we’re doing and who we are.
“The life events that make up the transition to adulthood are accompanied by a sense of commitment, purpose, and identity,” Furstenberg wrote.
Which is why right now it feels to me like we’re caught in the middle. On one side we’re tethered to the history of how the thirties have been lived in the past—there’s this assumption that we want to replicate that—and on the other, we’re establishing our own adult landmarks, like moving across the country, switching careers, or freezing our eggs. We’re taking time to figure out what we want, dealing with misfortunes we can’t control, and realizing our lives might not look the way we thought they would.
As I write this, there is no certainty about what the widespread health, economic, political, and social repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic will be. But it certainly centered the fear that may have been on the edges of our consciousness before: we may never get where we want to be. Our thirties could already feel staggeringly impossible to figure out, but now, in the midst of all this instability, believing you can achieve what you want can seem delusional. It’s harder than ever to see our dreams and go after them.
No matter what we’re striving for, or what we have to accept, we’re never going to get, it’s all hard. Adulthood no longer has to follow a strict order. Nothing is required, but that also makes everything unknown.
It feels wrong to admit: I’m still working on it. I don’t know if this is right. I thought it would be different. I can’t do this. But this is how so many of us are proceeding through the decade.
We’re not going back to a time when adults checked off milestones in lockstep, but that doesn’t mean that together we’re not changing what our thirties look like. We’re redefining the decade through our individual decisions and collective adaptation to an evolving culture and world.
It’s instinctual to want order, to demand an answer to the question: How does it end?
But this story isn’t about an ending. It’s about a new way of moving through our thirties. We’re confronting the goals that have been dictated for adulthood for ages and making difficult decisions about what we want and what we have to let go.
We’re structuring our lives in ways that fit our own comfort level and abilities. We’re bending them to the outside forces we can’t control and also to our individual advantages and disadvantages. We’re answering a different question: Where will that take us? We all know how it goes. Some days are a slog, others fat with possibility. We alternate from pushing ourselves to surviving however we can. There are triumphs and setbacks, false starts, retraced steps, and continued effort. The goals and timelines we set for ourselves can be modified or disappear. But no matter what, our lives aren’t being poured neatly into adult molds. Instead, we’re figuring out our thirties ourselves.
We want so much. We don’t know if we’ll get it. We’re still so young.
Excerpted from But You’re Still So Young: How Thirtysomethings Are Redefining Adulthood with permission from Dutton Books.  Copyright © 2021 Kayleen Schaefer.

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