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When Will My Twentysomething Truly Grow Up?

Your kid may be boomeranging now, but a survey says it'll get better

By Elizabeth Fishel and Jeffrey Arnett

By now there is widespread awareness that it takes longer to reach adulthood today than it did a few decades ago. “Thirty is the new 20,” as the popular saying goes. Most of us recognize that young people often need more education than they did in the past and that it can be challenging to find a stable place in today’s complex job market — not to mention the challenges of finding a “soul mate.”
But take heart — nearly everyone does finally grow up and take on the responsibilities of adulthood by about age 30, including your own emerging adult child.
So what happens next? How will your children experience the decade of the 30s? These were the questions we sought to answer in the 2014 Clark University Poll of Established Adults, a national survey of 1,003 Americans in their 30s.

(MORE: When Your Twentysomething Hasn't Grown Up)
Overall, the news is encouraging. People in their 30s struggle with the challenges of balancing work and family, but most of them manage the responsibilities of adult life successfully.

Here are the main findings of the 2014 Clark Poll:

Lots of stress, but even more enjoyment

The decade of the 30s is usually when the demands of family and career reach their peak, so the lives of established adults are busy, and often stressful. Their No. 1 source of stress is: “Too much to do and not enough time to do it all” (64 percent).

Although most of the consequences of aging are yet to come, even in the 30s, 36 percent name their physical health as a source of stress and 23 percent name mental health issues. Yet, sources of enjoyment are more abundant than sources of stress. Strong majorities enjoy hobbies (86 percent), friends (83 percent), travel (82 percent), watching TV (79 percent) and using social media (76 percent). But the No. 1 source of enjoyment, above all? “Having time to myself” (91 percent) — perhaps because it is so rare!

Most have found a partner

For most young Americans, the 20s are a time of making and breaking a series of relationships. However, according to the 2014 Clark Poll, by ages 30 to 39, 74 percent report being in a close love relationship (married, cohabiting or close boy/girlfriend). For the most part, those relationships are good: for 92 percent, they are a source of enjoyment; 87 percent say they have found their “soul mate.” Nevertheless, for 28 percent, their relationship is a source of stress and 27 percent admit that “Sometimes I wish I were single again.”

(MORE: Advice to Parents From a Boomerang Kid)

Parenting includes both joy and stress

Becoming a parent is a positive experience for almost everyone with children. Asked about the consequences to parenthood, 90 percent of those with kids say “more joy;” 89 percent say “more meaning to life” and 68 percent say “stronger relationship with my partner.” However, for 66 percent, parenthood has also brought more financial stress.

Work: High aspirations, mixed reality

During their 20s, most people have high hopes of finding a dream job, but how do those dreams work out by the 30s? Currently, 82 percent report they enjoy their job. On the other hand, 49 percent admit that “I haven’t been able to find the kind of job I really want.”

(MORE: Best Ways to Comfort Your Unemployed Adult Child)

Education: Important, but elusive


Today’s established adults are aware of the importance of education in the modern economy, as 67 percent of the participants in the 2014 Clark Poll believe that “One of the most important keys to success in life is a college education.” However, a disturbing finding is that a substantial majority of established adults believe they have not obtained enough education to prepare themselves for the world of work; only 35 percent have obtained a four-year college degree.

Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of 30- to 39-year-olds wish they had obtained more education than they have now (with rates especially high among Latinos (83 percent) and African Americans (70 percent).

Financial reasons seem to be the main obstacle: 43 percent say they have not been able to find enough financial support to get the education they need (with rates again highest among Latinos (56 percent) and African Americans (48 percent).

But they haven’t given up: 70 percent expect to get additional education or training at some point.

Still hopeful

Despite entering adult life during the worst recession in decades, today’s established adults are remarkably content and optimistic. Nearly nine of 10 (86 percent) agree that “I am confident that eventually I will get what I want out of life” and 77 percent agree that “at this time of my life, it still seems like anything is possible.”

Despite many forecasts that they face a future worse than what their parents’ experienced, over two-thirds (69 percent) believe that “overall, my life will be better than my parents’ lives have been.”
What It All Means For Parents and Society

In one sense, then, parents can relax: our kids are indeed growing up, even if later rather than sooner, to a mostly satisfying adulthood by their 30s.

However, we have work to do, as well as a society.

More needs to be done to provide educational opportunities to every American, regardless of their family resources. If nearly half of Americans in their 30s feel they did not get enough education to prepare themselves for adult life, that’s not just a problem for them, it’s a problem for all of us. It means millions of jobs go unfilled because employers can’t find enough qualified people and millions of frustrated adults in their 30s who are unemployed or underemployed because they are not qualified for the jobs they would like to have.

Surely our society can do better.

Elizabeth Fishel is the author of five nonfiction books including Sisters and Getting To 30: A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years (with Jeffrey Arnett).  She has contributed to numerous magazines including Vogue, Ms., New York, The Writer, and Oprah's O.  She has written for Next Avenue since 2014. Read More
Jeffrey Arnett is the co-author of Getting to 30: A Parent's Guide to the 20-Something Years. Arnett is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University. Read More
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