FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Why Johnny Won't Grow Up

Recently, a couple of my posts have mentioned "kidults," adults who indulge in kid-like activities such as video games, who wear clothes designed for much younger wearers, etc. The current issue of The Futurist cites research that indicates that the difficulty for young people making the transition to adulthood runs much deeper.

Sociologist Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania has noted a fundamental shift in our definitions of adulthood. Half a century ago, marriage and parenthood were the hallmarks of a successful adult. Today, the primary milestones are obtaining an education and getting a well-paying job. Young people today are far more likely to postpone marriage and childrearing, unlike their parents' and grandparents' generations, who considered unmarried adults to be suspect.

Among the obstacles Furstenberg cites for today's youth to become adults are:
  • College education, which creates a financial dependence upon parents well into the adult years
  • Divorce, which often forces young people to move back with their parents
  • Layoffs and other employment upheavals, again forcing some young people to move back home
  • Difficulties in securing well-paying jobs
  • The lack of universal military service and alternative service programs
In short, attaining adulthood was easier fifty years ago because life then was far more homogenous and predictable than it is today. Looking back at my parents' generation, most people married relatively young and started families soon after. Most men started careers right after school (high school in many cases), and stayed with the same employer until retirement. Most men -- particularly those of the World War II generation -- had at least some military background (which emphasized maturity, conformity and respect for authority). These generations shared sets of common experiences that do not exist today.

By contrast, today's young people live in a world of diversity and uncertainty. Having seen their peers go through painful divorces, they are less compelled to rush into marriage. Boomers and Gen-Xers distrust authority, their political consciousness having been shaped by Vietnam, Watergate and other scandals. Conformity went from a virtue to a weakness long ago.

Compounding the matter is our obsession with youth culture. The World War II generation paid little attention to the rock and roll of the '50s and '60s (other than to complain about it), but today's adults (at least those under 50) listen to much of the same music as their children do. Most adults are actively engaged in fighting the aging process, whether by working out, dieting, cosmetic surgery, or all of the above. Advertising urges us to think young and reject the bland and boring. Calling someone "old" or even "mature" is an insult.

The "kidult" phenomenon says a lot about where today's young people are headed, and the impact that today's society will have on the next generation. Whatever the future holds, our very definition of what it means to be an adult is evolving.