Most people would agree, the road to adulthood is longer than it has ever been before, by any measure.
Young people stay in school longer, live at home longer, marry later, become parents later and find their first job later. In fact, the transition to adulthood lasts so long Jeff Arnett proposed that it constitutes a new life stage between adolescence and young adulthood, called "emerging adulthood," lasting from age 18 to 29.
Many parents may find themselves puzzled and dismayed at how long their kids are taking to become adults, though. We sought to capture the anxiety that many parents feel in the title of our recent book, a parents’ guide to emerging adulthood called When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up?
For most parents, their biggest fear as they watch their children go through emerging adulthood is that it will never end, or at least that it will go on far too long.
They see their twentysomething children undecided about which path to take, or declaring a path decisively and then abandoning it abruptly a few months later, and they worry, "Geez, won't this kid ever get it together?"
Parents are usually ready to focus again on their own lives by the time their kids reach the 20s and feel their patience and wallets are being exhausted as another year passes and their emerging adult is still emerging, still on the way to an ever-receding adulthood.
(MORE: How to Set Money Ground Rules for a Boomerang Kid)
The downside of the longer road to adulthood is pretty obvious to most people: more anxiety on the part of emerging adults, as they struggle to find their place in the world and make many wrong turns on the way and more anxiety and expense for parents, as they end up supporting their kids (emotionally and financially) for a lot longer than they had expected.
But there is an upside to a later entry to adulthood, too. Here are some reasons to be glad if your kid is meandering through his or her 20s instead of settling down early.
Perhaps most importantly, the extended years of emerging adulthood enhance the likelihood that young people will make good choices in love and work. The 28-year-old is a lot better prepared to make the choice of a marriage partner than the 18-year-old or the 22-year-old, having had far more years of experience with relationships and gained far more cognitive and emotional maturity.
The 28-year-old can also make a wiser choice of a career path than the 18-year-old or the 22-year-old, having had more time to get a good education and gain a better sense of what his or her abilities, goals and opportunities are.
Sometimes, 18- or 22-year-olds are unusually mature and can make wise choices in love and work at a young age. But overall, the prospects of choosing well are enhanced by waiting until at least the late 20s.
More Prepared for Parenthood
Experiencing emerging adulthood also makes young people better parents — eventually.
Marriage is challenging and building a career is challenging but, as all parents know, there is nothing quite so formidably challenging as having the responsibility of caring for a child.
Especially in their early years, children stretch us to the limit of our physical endurance, our stress tolerance and our financial resources. There is no doubt that the 28-year-old is better prepared for these demands than the 18- or 22-year-old.
You Only Live Once (YOLO)
Another reason for parents to celebrate the new life stage of emerging adulthood is that it gives their children a window of opportunity to have experiences they couldn't have had at younger ages and most likely won’t have the chance for once they've taken on enduring adult responsibilities. They can take a shot at that musical career, volunteer for a service project in a developing country or just move to San Francisco or New York City to hang out and have fun for a year while waiting tables or making lattes.
These episodes of adventure make parents nervous sometimes. "[Kid’s name here] could be going to grad school, or doing an internship, or starting to make progress in a career or… something!"
That may be true, but as one of the parents in our online survey observed, "Why not prolong youth? It's already so fleeting." Besides, most young people today have a likelihood of living to 80 or 90, so why not take advantage of their longer life span?
One Last Chance for Family Time
Emerging adulthood should be embraced as one last chance for parents and children to be close before the children become true grown-ups, preoccupied with the demands of career building, spouses and child care.
True, there are things you won't miss, like urgent text messages at 3 a.m., persistent needs for cash and jarring announcements of a need to move back home for a while. Not a few parents may find themselves thinking wryly on such occasions, "How can I miss you if you won't go away?"
(MORE: What Empty Nests Really Look Like)
But miss them you will.
This boomer generation of parents wanted to be closer to their children than they had been to their own parents, and they succeeded, by and large. Most parents today can talk to their 20-something children as friends, about topics they never would have dreamed broaching with their own parents. The long transition of emerging adulthood allows parents to enjoy the fruits of all those strenuous child-raising years from infancy through adolescence.
It won't be long until you are no longer receiving their 3 a.m. text messages. Instead, you'll be wondering why they haven't answered the text you sent three days ago.
They'll fall in love, they'll find a partner who will become that person they rely on for support and nurturance every day, instead of you. It happens to almost everyone.
So enjoy this special closeness one last time, and try to lay a foundation of love and mutual trust that will endure in the decades to come.