“Children grow up too fast these days.”
You hear this said a lot, but is it true? I don’t think it is. I think some aspects of childhood have been compressed and others extended. Extended so far in fact that a lot of the traditional markers of adulthood are now things we don’t consider until well into our thirties. In the future, they might even be into our forties. In the meantime, we experience an extended adolescence.
What aspects of childhood have been compressed? Well perhaps inevitably with the advent of digital mass media, our children are exposed to more of the world, earlier. It is hard to completely shield them from some aspects of life without isolating yourself from the world in some form of religious retro commune. It is true of ideas about sex, politics, religion, celebrity, beauty, violence, crime, and more.
The good news is that it is mostly just ideas they are exposed to, rather than the real thing. Rates of violence and sexual crime are down a long way from the peak in the 1990s. Crime against children aged 10-15 has fallen 30% over the last decade. Teen pregnancy rates are down around 60% since the late 90s . Kids are drinking less, and anecdotally, are much less likely to go to nightclubs when they are underage than my peers and I were in the 90s.
Markers of adulthood
On the other side of childhood, lots of things happen much later. Learning to drive (average now 26). House buying (average age 33, rising to 37 in London ). Getting married (skewed by second marriages, but nonetheless, 37.9 for men, and 35.5 for women in heterosexual couples, rising to 40.8 for men and 37.4 for women in same sex couples). Having kids (30.6 for women and 33.6 for men).
The net result is a kind of extended adolescence, where you are aware of adult things early, but don’t reach many of the traditional markers of adulthood until later. Do we need to re-write the social rules for what marks out adulthood? Or do we accept that our lengthening lives mean that we need to think differently about different periods in our lives now?
Extended life, extended adolescence
I lean towards the latter. ‘Adulthood’ now covers an average period of 62.96 years, from being allowed to vote, to being buried. There is a lot of stuff that happens in between. While we still need the general term of ‘adult’ for people legally permitted to do certain things, there is no harm in starting to think differently about different periods of our lives. Not least because it might alleviate some of the pressure I hear about from younger adults.
Society’s pressures change faster than society’s expectations. I speak to people in their teens who are concerned about their lack of life plan. People in their twenties who are worried about the incoherence of their career path so far, or having not yet found a partner. I speak to people who feel like they’re doing something wrong because they don’t have a house as they approach thirty.
What they need to know is that that is just normal now. We should allow people an extended period of experimentation and adaptation throughout their twenties. And arguably, into their thirties. There is simply more time now than there has been in the past. Time to do, in all but the most tragic cases, many of the things we traditionally saw as markers of early adulthood.
There’s no rush to grow up.