Oh, Grow Up

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.

17 Comments on “Oh, Grow Up”

  1. I had a period around age 26 when I went through a lot of angst about not knowing what I wanted to do “when I grew up.” A good friend pointed out that he was 38 and still didn’t know, that it wasn’t necessarily important to figure it out by a particular age. I think that’s the big chnage to society these days — we live longer and, chances are, we work longer, and there’s not much likelihood of working for the same company, doing the same job, for an entire career anymore. I think that prompts some people to be a little more introspective about the whole thing, but it also means people are more likely to think, “well, I think I’ll like doing Job X, but if it doesn’t work out, there’ll be other things I can try.”

    The problem is when you don’t even have a Job X in mind. While I was getting my history degree, people kept assuming I was going to teach. I’d say that I didn’t plan on that and they’d act like I was some kind of freak of nature. What else can you do with a degree in history but teach? I’d say there’s lots of things (which is true) but that I didn’t know which one I wanted to do. They’d just nod and change the topic and leave me feeling like I was some kind of mutant. Of course, getting a history degree in the middle of Silicon Valley can make you feel like that, too.

  2. I seem to recall feeling pretty grown up by 24: married for two years (coming up on our 11th anniversary this summer) and my wife & I had just moved 500 miles out of state to go to grad school. All the people we met who were married for any length of time were generally five, six years older than us, and everyone else our age was not. And when we’d tell them we were married, their jaws would drop.

  3. I wonder if the longer-slacker thing is a result of the baby boom. Maybe the boomers have a lot of the jobs, and there are fewer places for youngsters to go. Wait a minute, though, in the 90’s there were plenty of jobs. So scratch that idea.

    No, I think the change occured at the same time a college degree became more and more necessary to get a job in the US.

    We added 4 years to the job-preparation time, and it shows in a delay for adulthood.

    I don’t think that is good or bad, it just is.

    And regarding slackerhood after 25 – I no longer think that is, by itself, a bad thing. I recently buried an Uncle of mine at the age of 65. He was pretty much a slacker all his life, at least in terms of never having children, never picking a ‘career’, and marrying only briefly. (No, he was not gay).

    You know how they say some people “march to a different drummer?”

    Not him. He marched to *no* drummer.

    Was he a slacker? Yes, but I no longer see that in a negative light.

  4. The down side I see to this is that a lot of people make sweeping assumptions based on it. I’m 24; two weeks after my 25th birthday, we’ll celebrate our 4th wedding anniversary. But people go around yammering to me about how nobody should get married until they’re 30, how no writers should even try to write books until they’re 35, etc. If I don’t give them crap for being late bloomers, I expect that they should do me the same courtesy as an early bloomer. Doesn’t tend to work that way.

    It’s bad enough that we give high school students the idea that they don’t matter, but extending it past college doesn’t seem like the greatest plan to me. And while I think there *should* be a line between “you’re allowed to make a few mistakes” and “we assume you’re stupid and you don’t matter,” in practice that line is a lot fuzzier than one might think.

  5. Well, people who make sweeping assumptions deserve when those assumptions come and bite them on the ass, I think.

    Certainly people who do things while they are young ought not to be penalized for them, nor should the young be assumed not to be able to do things — and I speak here with some experience, having been handed a movie critic job at age 22; a lot of my coworkers thought I didn’t have the experience for it but once I simply started doing the work, and doing it well, (to my coworkers credit) the age issue stopped being an issue.

    I think most people are like my coworkers. Show you can do whatever it is you want to do, and the issue will be settled.

  6. 24-year-old-slacker…okay.
    28-year-old-slacker…tick, tick, tick.

    What the hell does that mean for me at 33???

    I can’t stick around for an answer, though. I only work three days a week, so I’m off to Vega$ for the day. Wish me luck!

  7. Hell, Mike. Doing well enough to trek to Vegas when you only have to work thee days a week is a hint that “slacker” is probably not the right word for you.

  8. Huh. When I was 19, I decided I was going to England and Ireland for several weeks that summer. I told my parents this, and then thought: Wow, I must be a grown-up; I just /told/ my parents I was going to the other side of the planet, instead of asking.

    Of course, overall, I think being grown-up is terribly overrated. I’m a big fan of the age five. You’re old enough to be able to read a lot and you don’t have any real responsibilities, so you can mostly play. I don’t want an extended adolescence, but if I could spend a few years at age five, that’d be good! :)

  9. I’m 23 and on my second company, but I make up for it by having “watching cartoons” as my primary hobby…(well, OK, “anime”, but still…)

  10. “financially independent, age 20.9; not living with parents, age 21.2; full-time employment, age 21.2; finishing school, age 22.3; ”

    Okay, so here’s the life plan.
    -1st, you take care of yourself financially.
    -Then, a couple months later you should go get a real job and move out of the parents’ house.
    -Then you’ve got a year to kick around like that until you stop going to school.

    hmm… Okay… so, financial independence is unrelated to having a full time job, AND living without the folks. And more importantly -precedes- them. Sounds tough.
    (Okay, I know, that this is averages, but, where are people getting the idea that financial independence can precede leaving home?)

  11. I’m unmarried at 31, I still buy toys and play with robots (real robots, the ones you solder together). Haven’t lived with my parents since I was 18. Got a good job, which I’m thinking about quitting to go back to school full time to actually obtain a degree in something closer to vertebrate paleontology than graphic design.

    So I slack in some things, not in others. Pretty cool so far. I hear ticking, but I think that’s someone else’s clock.

  12. Yeah, this one keeps resonating with me…just had my 25th birthday, and I guess it explains why I still don’t feel “grown up” yet. Though I’d say that the timetable above should be pushed back a bit, as most people I know haven’t graduated/gotten a job/gone independent by 21 quite yet. I may be self-supporting, but I’m not sure where “grown up” comes in. I’m engaged, but in that long-term way (i.e. we’re not going to be able to afford to get married in this economy for years, and my family Must Have A Wedding), and I don’t even want to go there on the kid issue.

    Actually, come to think of it, the economy’s really encouraging delayed adulthood. People being broke enough to have to move back home again, people who can’t get a job in their chosen career and end up working at McDonald’s because they can’t get anything else, people who can’t afford to get married/get a house/have a baby, etc., just spend years in a holding pattern until things improve so they can move on. I know I’m in a “holding pattern”- i.e. holding on to my dull job for dear life if I can until writing jobs are available in however many years. So much for my prodigy years.

    This article seems to define the ultimate Adulthood as being a mommy/daddy, though, which is annoying to those of us who don’t automatically want to be enthusiastic parents ASAP. Maybe people my age aren’t so bothered by this yet though.

    I’d better “grow up” and start feeling it soon though, or else everyone will kick my 28-year-old slacker ass. Hell, people have been ready to kick my ass for not being Grown Up Enough for the last two years.

  13. Just for two more votes on the 25-26 breakpoint:

    25 is when auto insurance rates for males drop quite sharply, or they did when I was 25, anyway. Apparently the statistics say if you were going to run over lots of people you’ll have done it sooner.

    In my case the premium dropped like 40%. I then boosted my coverage up so that the premium was about the same as it had been. By then I thought I actually had assets worth protecting, maybe that was a sign of maturity.

    Besides the car insurance people, the Selective Service people stop requiring males to stay registered for the draft after age 26. Maybe that’s when you stop thinking you can’t die, reducing your usefulness as cannon fodder.

    My mom, on the other hand, just has a negative definition “until you have lived on your own and been financially independent, you are not an adult.”


  14. I’ve been thinking a bit about this since I saw the article this morning. Looking back, I think my adulthood started when I paid off the car loan that my parents cosigned with me. When I graduated from college, I got an apartment in the city (shacking up with the guy I’m now married to) and had a job in the suburbs, so I really needed a car. My savings were minimal and I couldn’t get a loan for a decent used car on my own, so my parents co-signed and I bought a three-year-old Toyota Corolla. I paid off the loan about a year later, right around the time my then-fiance and I joined our finances. And since then, I’ve been financially independent of my parents. Achieving financial self-sufficiency, is, I think, the essence of adulthood in this society. And yeah, I think you can get away with being a slacker up to about the age of 25, at which point you really need to get the hell out of your parents’ basement.

  15. A few years ago (okay, a whole lot of years ago) my five year old son asked me “So what do you want to be when you grow up, Daddy?” — Always got a lot of smiles from people when I would tell that story — and now that little kid is like your age (he’ll hit 35 in September) and he and his wife have conspired to make me a grandfather in July. Yes, time flies! And, no, I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up. *grin*

  16. You know that you are grown up when,

    A) You stop thinking of an adult as “a grownup” and just call them by their name.


    B) You start thinking how your friends really just need to grow up and start acting like adults.

  17. These numbers are ridiculous, as they represent the average of multiple divergent cultural ideals of paths through life — since paths through life are not subject to the laws of addition and division (especially in regards timing!) the middle value represented is incoherent (as pointed out earlier).

    As for myself, I would hold adulthood to be the point at which one is responsible for the consequences of their actions. You must be materially capable of doing so, and then actually choose to do so.
    A 55 year old swindler who whines and pleads if he is caught (given that he realizes that it will not actually help in his defense) is a littler kid than the 17 year old who gets a part-time job to save up for college.

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