What does it mean to be an adult—and are we taking too long to get there?
By Sharon Miki, Humour Editor
When we’re children, the idea of growing up can often seem alluring: no rules, no one telling you what to do, no more homework after school. Indeed, the concept of “adulthood” seems like a predestined state of total freedom that we’ll all just inevitably reach someday, as if by magic.
As the years go by though, more and more Canadian youth are finding themselves reaching so-called adult milestones chronologically, and yet—even when we’re blowing out more than 20 candles on our birthday cakes—that sense of being a grown-up still eludes many of us. Aside from age, what does it take for young people to be adults in Canada today, and why is it so hard for so many of us to attain this status in a significant way?
What does it mean to be an adult?
In British Columbia, we turn 18 and we can vote; we turn 19 and we can drink. But at what time do we no longer feel like children? Does being an adult mean simply that we are able to buy lotto tickets, or is adulthood a social construct?
According to Statistics Canada, true adulthood is determined by when a young person (which is defined as being between the ages of 18 and 34) passes through a series of five milestones: finishing school, moving out their parents’ home, finding a permanent job, getting married (or finding a long-term partner), and having children. Once a person has checked all of these markers off of their life list, they win the prize of being considered a full-fledged adult.
Are we adults yet?
For the most part, no. If we use the five-marker threshold as our definition of adulthood, then data shows that young adults today are taking longer to reach maturity.
“You could say that the transitions of today’s young adults are both delayed and elongated,” explains Warren Clark, in a report on Canadian Social Trends for Statistics Canada. “[D]elayed, because young adults take more time to complete their first major transition (leaving school), thus postponing all subsequent transitions; and elongated, because each subsequent transition takes longer to complete and stretches the process from their late teens to their early 30s.”
Indeed, statistics show that young Canadians are taking longer to complete each of the adulthood milestones. Today’s youth take longer to:
- finish school (in 1971, three-quarters of young adults had completed their education by age 22; in 2001, only half of young Canadians had done the same)
- move out (in 1981, 26.9 per cent of Canadian young adults aged 20–29 lived at home; as of 2011, 42.3 per cent of adults in the same age group live with their parents)
- find a permanent job (as they are staying in school for longer)
- get married (in 1971, 65 per cent of men/80 per cent of women were in a conjugal relationship by 25; in 2001 just 34 per cent of men and 49 per cent of women said the same)
- and have children (the mean age of mothers at the time of delivery in 1991 was 27.7 years old; in 2010, the mean age had risen to 29.6 years)
What’s stopping us from growing up?
While passing through all five of these hoops may seem daunting to today’s youth, studies show that in years past, moving towards this definition of adulthood was indeed more common and attainable.
“[T]here definitely is validity to the idea that certain ‘markers of adulthood’ are becoming harder to attain. For each of the ‘markers’… there are tangible, measurable changes occurring,” explains Douglas College Sociology faculty member, Murray Shaw.
For example, Shaw notes that young people today are in a difficult position when it comes to balancing the burden of more necessary post-secondary education and moving towards other adult markers: “[h]aving a degree or professional certification of some kind has become increasingly important in the job market. At the same time, the decreasing share of post-secondary education being covered by public [government] funds, and the resulting increased costs of tuition for individuals is having a direct impact on the ability of people to afford and attain post-secondary educations.”
Another pertinent example of an adult marker that is becoming more difficult to attain (and maintain) is living away from the parental home. In 1981, when many of today’s youth’s parents were coming of age, far more young adults aged 20-29 were living on their own compared with today’s young adults. If moving away from your parents’ home is a major move towards becoming an adult, why are so many of us still under their roofs?
“Many young adults continue to live with their parents not just because of the financial burden of paying for their postsecondary education, but also because they may be unemployed or working in a low-paying precarious job,” explains Clark.
Shaw provides an example of the unique challenges millennials face that make moving out and owning a home—like an adult—difficult. “Owning property has traditionally been an important symbol of adulthood and material security. The cost of owning property has increased very rapidly over the last several decades, making it a difficult, if not impossible, marker for many adults to achieve today. As a striking example, the house my parents bought in 1970 in Elbow Park, Calgary for $20,000 would probably sell today for over $1 million. There actually was a time, not long ago, when someone with a very average salary could own a fully detached house in the heart of a major city.”
Similarly, when it comes to finding the permanent employment necessary for many to move towards the traditional ideal of adulthood, there are obstacles that our parents did not face.
“Today’s young people face a labour market that earlier cohorts did not have to contend with: an increasing wage gap between newly hired employees and those with more experience; more temporary jobs for newly hired workers; and fewer male employees covered by registered pension plans, meaning that new hires are entirely responsible for saving for their own retirement without the backup of an employer-sponsored pension plan,” reports Clark.
Is there hope?
If we aren’t adults now, and if we’re facing a plethora of challenges in our present future, will we ever be able to truly grow up?
Maybe not—or at least not in the way we viewed adulthood when we were children. While we may not achieve the traditional model of “adulthood” within our lives, we might instead redefine what it means to grow up.
“I think it can be argued that related to the above-noted changes in material, tangible social factors are changes in the [non-material] norms and values associated with ‘adulthood,’” explains Shaw. “In the past, being over 25 or 30 and unmarried and/or childless would be cause for attention and a certain amount of social judgement. Today, this is far less the case. When you think of the numerous ways that individuals are connected to the community through their families, particularly through their children’s various activities and friendships, it is clear that such a change in norms regarding adulthood could have effects on the sort of society we live in.”
While the answer may not be immediately clear, young people today should keep striving for maturity, without stressing too much if it isn’t a replica of the adulthood of our parents.
And, if all else fails, just repeat the mantra: I don’t wanna grow up—I’m a [millennial] kid.