I still clearly remember the frenzy of desire with which I approached getting my driver's license. Living in a rural community, passing that test meant freedom. Ditto to an after school job and the pocket money it provided. In short, I couldn't wait to be more adult. Maybe you remember these feelings too.
But apparently, today's teens are different. After crunching 40 years worth of data, researchers have come to one basic conclusion -- kids these days just aren't all that keen on growing up.
18 is the new 15.
The research, published in recently Child Development and led by well known psychologist Jean Twenge, sifted through seven nationwide surveys of more than eight million teenagers across four decades to find out at what ages young people passed certain traditional markers of adulthood, like driving, drinking, having sex, and getting a job. Across the board the researchers found teens are doing these things later than they used to.
For example, in the late '70s, 86 percent of high school seniors had gone on a date. These days only 63 percent have. The percentage of teens who have ever had a paid job has fallen from 76 to 55 percent over the same period. This is true across demographic and geographic lines.
"The developmental trajectory of adolescence has slowed, with teens growing up more slowly than they used to," Twenge commented. "In terms of adult activities, 18-year-olds now look like 15-year-olds once did."
Good news or bad?
The headlines for this story say a lot about the mixed feelings it's elicited. Vice made its opinion clear with, "Today's Teens Are Lame as Hell, Study Finds." "Gen Z teens aren't having any fun, research finds," frets The New York Post. Clearly, some people see these findings as confirmation of popular hand-wringing about infantile young people stunted by overprotective helicopter parenting.
Still, it's hard to too argue that fewer 15 year olds getting plastered and 16 year olds driving dangerously is somehow a destructive. The answer to whether this study is happy or sad news, probably comes down to what's driving these changes. Is this mostly about responsible decision making, hovering parents, or something else?
There are a few things that are clearly not behind the changes -- extracurricular activities and homework. Despite much angst about the apparent increase in these activities, the data show that kids actually aren't actually spending any more time on clubs, sports or homework than they used to.
Also, despite plenty of public worry by Twenge about out-of-control screen time among teens (see her recent Atlantic piece "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?"), these trends can't be entirely about teens and their devices either. Rates of teen participation in adult activities began to decline before the internet became widespread.
An appropriate response to economic reality?
Twenge and her co-authors point the finger at something else -- prosperity (for some).
"Youths may be less interested in activities such as dating, driving or getting jobs because in today's society, they no longer need to be," the Washington Post explains, summing up the researchers' conclusions. Instead of contributing to the family finances or worrying about shouldering more responsibility, many teens today are encouraged to invest in education and personal development that may pay off down the road.
"Families are smaller, and the idea that children need to be carefully nurtured has really sunk in," Twenge tells WaPo. Though the study data don't cover younger kids, such nurturing, risk-averse parenting may begin even earlier, i.e. not letting children be alone until a later age, etc.
The researchers' proposed explanation, then, is basically a more positive restatement of the helicopter parenting hypothesis. Yes, the researchers concede, teens aren't being pushed to enter adulthood, but that has its upsides. Maybe teens and their parents are reacting appropriately to a winner-take-all world that demands lengthy education and careful preparation for success.
Which sounds relatively positive, until you consider all the evidence that Twenge herself and others have uncovered that this generation is more stressed, lonelier, and generally more miserable than those that preceded it.
What good is preparing yourself so meticulously and for a brand of adult life that will has already started to make you unhappy?
What's your take, is this study mostly good or bad news?