A new study from my alma mater the University of Chicago suggests that most of us think that someone doesn’t really get grown-up until around the age of 26:
“According to those surveyed, the average age someone should marry was 25.7, and the age for having children was 26.2. Most respondents considered parenthood the final milestone needed to reach true adulthood… Nearly 1,400 of those surveyed last year were asked to answer the questions about adulthood.
They were asked to rate the importance of seven stages of transition into adulthood – from attaining financial independence to getting married and having children. They also were asked to specify the ages at which those stages should be achieved.
For categories other than marriage and having children, the average ages were: financially independent, age 20.9; not living with parents, age 21.2; full-time employment, age 21.2; finishing school, age 22.3; and being able to support a family, age 24.5.” — Associated Press
This survey pretty much codifies something that’s been my own personal opinion, which is that being a “kid” pretty much lasts these days until you’re about 25 — which is, you can screw around (or screw up) any time before that age and not really have it count against you in the court of general opinion (opposed to say, a court of law, so you still can’t drink and drive). Try it for yourself: Which is worse — a 24-year-old slacker, or a 28-year-old one? Easily, the 28-year-old. The 24-year-old one slides by on the “well, he’s still got time” thing, but when you look at a 28-year-old farting around, the feeling is “clock’s ticking, dude.”
I also think there’s a psychological edge to the 25th year, in that if you wanted to be considered much of a prodigy in anything, you had to get it done before the age of 25. By the time I was 25, I was a nationally syndicated film critic and humor columnist, which made me feel pretty good about myself (and the movie reviews, at least, were pretty good), but I hadn’t written the Great American Novel, which was something I figured I’d have done by then. Which is not to say I hadn’t tried. I’ve got a couple of attempts hidden in my files. You don’t want to see them. The one thing I can note is that they’re very short, because it became clear within about ten pages that I had no clue what I was doing. Now it looks like my first novel will be published just short of my 35th birthday, and I’m good with that. I’m not a novel prodigy, and it’s not the Great American Novel. But it’s a Pretty Good American Science Fiction Novel, and now I feel like I have a clue. So it’s worked out pretty well. Anyway, once you get over 25, you worry less about doing things on a timetable and worry more about doing them well.
Personally, I felt reasonably adult when I was 26 — I’d just got married, and had been working and supporting myself for a few years by then — but the first time I felt irrevocably grown up was shortly after I got laid off by AOL in 1998. Krissy and I had been just about to make an offer on a house when I got whacked, and we had to make the choice between retreating, grabbing a less expensive apartment and waiting until I had a certain and stable income before we got a house, or deciding to take a leap of faith, buy a house and assume that we’d make it work. We took the leap of faith, and as Robert Frost once said about a similar situation, it made all the difference. I’ve never had reason to believe I was anything less than a grown-up since then, even when I’m playing video games. And as I said, it’s not like I didn’t feel like a grown-up before then. It was just the crystallizing moment that showed where my brain was (for the record, I think Krissy was all grown up at least a couple of years before me, a mildly embarrassing fact because she’s a year younger than I am. But let’s not get into that now).
I’m nt a professional sociologist, but I don’t think there’s much of a downside of people having an extended adolescence. Yes, it leads to more time for people to make asses for themselves, as amply shown by the explosion of Girls Gone Wild videos, but the whole point of being young is to get most of the “I’m Making an Ass of Myself” energy out of your system, so that when you finally slide into true adulthood you can focus on the pleasures and responsibilities of being all grown up without the additional urge to make an ass of yourself later (a process known as the “Mid-Life Crisis”). If the end result of six spring breaks in Cancun and Daytona Beach instead of two is that you say that’s something I don’t need to do again after the last one, then by all means, have six spring breaks. When you hit 43 without freaking out and breaking up your marriage to (take your pick) date a 21-year-old Hooters waitress or fondle the hot young assistant gardener, your spouse and your children will thank you. Be young, have fun, and then go on. It’s nice when it works that way. And it takes a little bit longer, it’s probably worth the investment.
Just, you know, not too long. Remember: 24-year-old slacker — okay. 28-year-old slacker — tick tick tick tick tick tick tick, baby.