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Column: Teens Staying Forever Young? Maybe Blame the Parents

For The Washington Post
Published: 9/25/2017 8:00:31 PM
Modified: 9/25/2017 8:00:34 PM

Don’t grow up too fast. It’s the refrain of country singers and misty-eyed grandparents across the nation. Surprisingly, the kids are taking their advice.

At least that’s what the data seems to show. According to a study published last week in the journal Child Development, teenagers are increasingly putting off traditional markers of adulthood. In particular, the percentages of adolescents (ages 13 to 19) who date, drink, have a driver’s license or work for pay have dropped drastically since 1976, with the sharpest drop occurring in the past 10 years.

The phenomenon isn’t confined to coddled, middle-class suburbanites. The decreases span racial, geographic and socioeconomic lines. And the results aren’t due to more time spent on extracurricular activities or homework — those hours are actually stable or trending down, too.

One might be tempted to think: Great! Finally the youth aren’t driving drunk and getting one another pregnant! (In fact, the teen birthrate hit an all-time low in 2016.) Yet oddly, the response hasn’t been quite so positive.

“Teens are working less and mooching off their parents more,” grumbled the New York Post. Tweeting out a graph from the study, Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., observed that it contained “extraordinary data” before trailing off with an ominous ellipsis. By and large, the decline in drinking, driving and dating has been interpreted as evidence of timidity, laziness and antisocial tendencies.

The old criticizing the young is one of our most enduring traditions, a crotchety inheritance passed down from generation to generation. But what our current throng of skeptical elders seems to forget is that today’s generation of childish teens — like the much-derided millennials before them — didn’t raise themselves. What if the youth aren’t to blame? What if the problem is the adults?

The study itself seems to bear this out. In one of its most overlooked portions, researchers Jean M. Twenge and Heejung Park discuss social context. They point out that a “slower developmental path” is the likely outcome for a cohort raised in an environment with higher parental investment in fewer children, greater life expectancy and, interestingly, the expectation of high education levels.

Grow up fast? Why bother if you’ll be in school until you’re 25?

Perhaps, as a millennial, I’m a bit oversensitive to such critiques. My generation has been similarly criticized as slow to launch. But many of our choices are formed less by a perverse wish to live in our parents’ basements than as a coping mechanism for a social context handed down to us by previous generations — one of financial crisis, scarce employment, limited (but expensive!) housing and student debt. The last, of course, was acquired at the urging of adults who constructed a society in which a college degree was depicted — optimistically, it turns out — as the path to security.

One teen informant of my acquaintance confessed to me that she probably would get a paying job if working would actually matter for her future — or at least looked better on her college applications than the spate of enrichment activities she already has scheduled. But why the emphasis on college as the only possible destination? And who is determining what looks good on those applications? (Hint: It’s not her.)

When it came to dating, her views echoed those of another teen quoted by The Washington Post. “It seems sort of ridiculous to be seriously dating someone in high school. I mean, what’s the plan there?” Settling down or marrying young has been so thoroughly discredited by all-knowing adults (including those baby boomers whose frequent divorces have made commitment a less-than-dependable ideal) that it seems barely an option.

When I was a teenager — not all that long before this current crop — I didn’t drink. I also didn’t really date. I drove mostly to school and back, and I only started working at a local ice cream shop at the tail end of my senior year. To be honest, I thought I was just unusually lame. But apparently, I was just ahead of my time.

As it happens, I think I’ve turned out well enough. But I do, on some level, recognize that the pressures that shaped some of my choices were less than ideal — but neither were they really of my own making. Today, I’m less interested in my anxieties than in those whose anxieties formed them. Were their worries worthwhile? Were their solutions the right ones? Could anything have gotten them to just chill out?

So, dear parents, relax. The kids will probably be all right. And if they’re not? Well, blame yourselves.

Christine Emba writes about ideas for The Washington Post’s opinion section.

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