COLUMN: A revised version of adulthood

Friday, June 25, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

From the time I was very small, my mother had rules for my life.

  1. You can't get married until you're 32.
  2. College is not optional.
  3. Get a master's degree immediately after college (because once you get into the workforce, you won't go back, my mother says).
  4. No tattoos.
  5. No living in California (because they're weird out there, so says my mother).
  6. Backpack through Europe.

It goes on and on, and occasionally she makes one up that I know wasn’t on the list when I was 10. And while other parents' desires for their children's lives were perhaps less specific, they reflect the middle-to-upper-class ideal that young people should go to college and establish careers before “settling down” with a spouse, a mortgage and kids.

I think my peers and I bought into this hook, line and sinker.

The Missourian recently asked, Why are Americans taking longer to grow up? Apparently, we young'uns are still dependent on our parents for money and housing and are making our parents wait longer for grandchildren. This makes us an economic strain in hard times on the older generation, or something.

I say just because I don’t have kids and am still in school at the ancient age of 24 doesn’t mean I’m not a real grown-up. Adulthood is simply being defined differently these days.  

It’s true that my parents still pay for my car and I’m still on my father’s health insurance plan. It’s also true that I’m putting myself through graduate school with teaching assistantships and loans (also known as mounds of soul-crushing debt).

When societies demand that young people make a small horde of money before becoming truly independent, the age of marriage rises. Stephanie Coontz wrote in "Marriage, a History" that "In England between 1500 and 1700 the median age of first marriage for a woman was twenty-six, which is higher than the median age for American woman at any point during the twentieth century."

The expectations of young adults amongst the commoners during this period were not unlike what seems to be expected today. Although college wasn’t on the menu in 1500, according to Coontz, the ability to independently support children and a separate household was. Not to mention many of the trade guilds required apprentices to remain single, so if a man wanted to learn a trade to support a wife and family, he would have to wait.

There are other pressures on today’s youth that contribute to this supposed delayed adolescence. First, the economy has been rather miserable since 2001 and went from bad to worse in 2008. With unemployment hovering above nine percent, jobs are scarce for young people with thin resumes.

Furthermore, the cost of higher education has skyrocketed in the past 20 years — it has well outpaced the rate of inflation. My mother, who wrote these rules for me, put herself through the University of Michigan in the late '70s working for $2.35 an hour at a gift shop, which along with an $800 scholarship from the state of Michigan and working as an resident-hall assistant for room and board, was enough to pay the $660 per semester to attend school full time.

This is simply not possible these days. Without my parents and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, in addition to the $7-an-hour job I worked at Shakespeare’s Pizza as an undergrad, I wouldn’t have made it through college, much less a master’s degree.

And so here I am: 24-years-old, single, childless, overeducated and on the brink of homelessness and unemployment (or so I think on my cynical days when my job hunt doesn’t go well). My mother was married and gainfully employed at my age.

Maybe I’m not an adult by the most prevalent societal standards of adulthood, but society is changing. It has given us a revised standard of adulthood.

Erin K. O'Neill is an assistant director of photography for the Missourian and a master's degree candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism. Her mother, Carol J. Homkes, lives in Georgetown, Ky., and is a manufacturer’s representative in the gift industry.

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