• Project Adulthood

When Do You Become An Adult?

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Do you feel like an adult? If you’re 18 years old or older, you’re probably considered an adult in most parts of the world.

However, you may not necessarily think of yourself as a “grown-up.” And you’re not the only one. A quick Google search of “don’t feel like an adult” returns results like “I’m 29 years old, but don’t feel like an adult,” “Why don’t I feel like an adult at 30 years old even though I act like one?” and even “I’m 40. Am I grown up yet?

So the question remains: when do most people become adults? Or is adulthood a myth? Let’s find out.

24 Or Under? You’re Not An Adult Yet

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The modern definition of an “adult” is, according to Oxford Languages, “a person who is fully grown or developed.” So when are we fully “developed”? Not until we’re in our mid-20s, at least, according to scientific studies.

Turns out, people’s brains aren’t fully developed until they’re about 25 years old, and there’s a real difference in how adult and teen brains work.

Whereas adults tend to think with the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps solve problems, control impulses, and regulate emotions, teens think with the amygdala, the emotional part of the brain. Crucially, for 18-year-olds, the prefrontal cortex is only halfway developed.

Further research shows that most people don’t become adults until they’re in their 30s and that “there isn’t a childhood and then an adulthood. People are on a pathway, they’re on a trajectory.”

Emerging Adulthood

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If you’re in your 20s and you really want to put a label on the phase of life you’re in right now, you could opt for “emerging adulthood,” a term the psychology professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett coined over two decades ago.

According to Arnett, emerging adulthood is the period from the end of adolescence to the start of young adult responsibilities, like marriage, stable job, and parenthood.

Emerging adulthood usually spans from about ages 18 to 29. Arnett claims that emerging adulthood is a new phenomenon, one that appeared in the last few decades in response to economic and social changes.

Why Being An Adult Today Is So Hard

You don’t need to be a scientist to know that young adults today lead their lives differently to past generations. Here are just a few reasons why becoming an adult today is much more difficult for us than it was for our parents or grandparents.

1. We can’t afford to buy a home

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For many, owning a home is a marker of adulthood. Unfortunately, a growing number of Millennials think that owning a home is a pipe dream. This cynicism is justified.

Homeownership among young adults has fallen by 10% from 1960 to 2017, with more Millennials stuck renting for much longer than the previous generations. Most young adults now rent for six years before buying a home, up from just over two years in the early 1970s.

The average first-time homebuyer is now aged about 33. A generation ago, the average first-time buyer was around three years younger.

Why the delay? It’s not like young adults today want to rent. It’s just that they can’t afford to buy a home.

Over two-thirds of young renters would purchase a home if they had the financial means to do so. But because the majority of young adults today live in high-cost cities where most of the jobs are and have huge student debt (more on that below), they don’t.

Home prices are skyrocketing

It doesn’t help that the cost of houses has also risen exponentially over time. In 1970, the median home value in the U.S. was $17,000, which is about $114,610 in today’s dollars.

In contrast, in 2020, the median home value in the U.S. was $340,000 — a 300% increase. Home prices are expected to grow by a further 8% in 2021 and by over 5% in 2022.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau and

That prices rise over time is understandable. But in 2016, home prices increased twice as fast as inflation, and in about two-thirds of the country, home price growth far exceeded wage growth.

Back in the 1970s, the average first-time homebuyer bought a home that cost 1.7 times their annual income. Now, average first-time buyers are purchasing homes that are 2.6 times their yearly income.

Rents are rising fast

Maybe we should continue renting then? Unfortunately, that’s not really an option, either. Rents have also soared.

Since 1960, inflation-adjusted rents increased by 64%, even though household incomes rose by just 18%, making it even harder to save for a downpayment on a house and afford monthly mortgage repayments.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Unsurprisingly, Millennials are more likely than other generations to live with their parents. About 15% of Millennials live in their parents’ homes. Only 8% of early Boomers and Silents and 9% of Gen X lived with their parents when they were the same age.

2. We Are Earning Less Money Than Our Parents

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In a 2019 survey, 75% of young adults defined adulthood as being financially independent. Here, too, Millennials are struggling, not least because they make considerably less money than their parents did at their age.

Although Millennials with at least a bachelor’s degree earned $56,000 in 2018, which is slightly more than what college-educated Boomers made, Millennials with just some college or no postsecondary education earned less than previous generations.

Case in point: Millennials with some college education made $36,000 in 2018. In contrast, early Boomers with some college education made $38,900 (adjusted for inflation) at the same age in 1982.

Similarly, the median household income of households headed by Millennials with some college in 2018 was $62,358, almost $4,000 less than households headed by late Boomers with some college education at the same age.

But what about those with no college education? The median household income for Millennials who had just finished high school was $49,363. This is over $6,000 less than the median household income for Boomer high school graduates.

Source: The Pew Research Center

The most educated generation

Luckily, many Millennials have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher. Four in ten Millennials in 2018 had at least a bachelor’s degree compared with just a quarter of Boomers.

But there’s a reason Millennials are the most educated generation. Getting a good job without a college degree today is much harder.

An increasing number of employers require a college degree for jobs that traditionally did not need higher education. In fact, jobs requiring higher levels of job preparation (i.e., education and experience) grew by nearly 70% between 1980 and 2015.

Degree inflation

In addition, in 2017, researchers found that over 6 million middle-skill jobs were at risk of something known as “degree inflation” — the surging demand for bachelor’s degrees in jobs that didn’t always need one and probably still don’t.

Millennial wealth deficit

Millennials, in general, have less wealth than Boomers did at their age. In 2016, the median net worth of Millennial households came to around $12,500. In 1983, the median net worth of Boomer households was $20,700.

It’s little wonder, then, that more than half of Americans under the age of 37 have received some financial assistance from their parents since turning 21.

Surely things will look up for us one day, right? Well, maybe not. A 2019 report from the think tank New America does not see Millennials replicating the previous generations’ financial success.

3. We Are Weighed Down By More Debt

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Speaking of financial independence, young adults today have more debt than the previous generations.

Drowning in student debt

Student debts are a particularly crippling financial burden to many Millennials.

In the 1969–1970 academic year, the average yearly fee for attending a private institution was $1,533, or around $10,926 in today’s dollars. In contrast, during the 2019–2020 academic year, the average annual fee for private higher education was $31,519 — a difference of 20,593.

Basically, for the cost of today’s higher education, you could send three people to a private college in the early 1970s.

Source: Statista

Similarly, the average annual charges for higher education in the 1969–1970 academic year at public institutions was $323, or around $2,302 in 2021 dollars. On the other hand, the average annual fee for public higher education in the 2019–2020 academic year was $7,250.

Source: Statista

In the time period, the cost of a degree at a private school rose by 188%. Public school college students fared even worse, with their cost of tuition and other services going up by almost 215%.

In 1970 average student debt was $7,213.73 when adjusted for inflation. The average student loan debt today is $37,691. What’s worse, many graduates say that college wasn’t worth the debt they took on to attend it. Due to a competitive job market, recent college graduates have a hard time finding a job after college and often end up taking jobs that pay less.

“Debt-free” is the new “get rich”

While student loan debt is one of the highest consumer debt categories, young adults may also have mortgage debt (if they’re lucky and can afford a mortgage in the first place) and credit card debt.

Increasing credit card debts may be due to rising costs in motor vehicle insurance, childcare, and health care. According to the Insider, health care costs have increased by $9,000 since the 1970s, and about half of all Millennials have delayed medical care because they don’t have the money to pay for it.

It’s no huge shock then that most Millennials define financial success as being debt-free rather than rich.

4. We Are Putting Off Getting Married

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If getting married is a traditional indicator of adulthood, then Millennials are failing. Today, most young adults are getting married later in life, if at all.

Millennials’ attitudes to marriage are in direct contrast to those of the previous generations. For example, back in the 1970s, it was common for men and women to first marry in their early 20s. Nowadays, the median age for marriage is closer to 30.

In 2018, the average man married for the first time at the age of 29.8, and the average woman married at the age of 27.8.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

The reason young adults are waiting to get married today is that they don’t feel like they can afford to start a family. Millennials who do get married today tend to be better off financially.

Millennials are redefining marriage

But it’s not just money stopping Millennials from marrying at a young age. Today, most young adults also take more time to get to know each other before walking down the aisle.

The average American couple between 25- and 34-years-old spend six-and-a-half years as romantic partners or friends before marrying.

In 2018, 9% of those aged 18 to 24 lived with an unmarried partner, compared to 7% of those in the same age who lived with a spouse. In the 25 to 34 cohort, 15% lived with a partner. Compare these figures to 1968, when only up to 0.2% of young adults lived with an unmarried partner.

It’s obvious Millennials want to be sure they have a strong foundation for marriage before committing. It looks like they’re succeeding — the divorce rate hit a record low in 2019.

A sexually repressed generation

The share of adults who never marry is growing rapidly. In 2014, the Pew Research Center predicted that by the time today’s young adults would reach middle age, about a quarter of them will never have married.

This may have something to do with the fact that Millennials are dating less and having less sex.

A 2015 report found that Millennials have significantly fewer sexual partners than previous generations did when they were the same age. Another 2015 study reported that one in three 20-somethings hadn’t experienced intercourse at all. Millennials are having so little sex that in 2018 The Atlantic said we are “in the midst of a sex recession.”

5. We Have Kids Later In Life

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Having to look after someone else often makes people feel like an adult. Ask people about their adult transitions, and one of the most common responses will likely include having children.

However, Millennials are delaying becoming parents. In 2018, 55% of Millennial women had given birth. At the same age, 62% of Gen X and 64% Baby Boomers had given birth.

Source: The Pew Research Center

The fertility rate also appears to be decreasing steadily. According to a 2019 government report, the total fertility rate should be 2,100 births per 1,000 women in order for the population to replace itself. However, at the time, the rate was just 1,765.5 per 1,000 women — 16% less than required.

Before the pandemic, the number one reason women had fewer children than they wanted was because of childcare costs. Other reasons included worries that they would not be able to give their children the amount of time they deserved and anxiety about the economy.

COVID-19 baby bust

The fertility rate is now probably even lower considering that, contrary to initial predictions, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused people to have even fewer babies.

In 2021, there could be up to 500,000 fewer births than the previous year. The uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 has made everyone weary. And it’s not just financial concerns. Women are also anxious about the health of their babies. They’re not thrilled by the idea that their partner may not be allowed to be present in the delivery room when they are giving birth, either.

The Unlucky Generation

There’s no way around it: young adults today have it tough. Housing, education, and healthcare are more expensive, paychecks are smaller, and since the pandemic began, there are 10 million fewer jobs.

The hardship caused by the COVID-19 recession isn’t a novel experience for Millennials, though. Most Millennials experienced the 9/11 attacks — and the grim aftermath thereafter — and entered the labor market during the Great Recession, which has set them back for decades.

It’s no wonder Millennials have been dubbed as “the unluckiest generation in the U.S. history,” even more unlucky than the “Lost Generation” that came of age during WWI. Fittingly, The Atlantic recently called Millennials the “new lost generation.”

It’s hard to feel like a grown-up when you’re single, still live with your parents, don’t like your job, and have mounting debt that needs to be paid off.

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