Study: Long Road to Adulthood Is Growing Even Longer

Cohen, P. (2010). “Long Road to Adulthood Is Growing Even Longer.” The New York Times.  Retrieved on 23 June, 2010.

Summary: Recent studies and surveys reveal the shift to adulthood in the United States is occurring later in life and that traditional markers of such a transition are also being reconsidered.  Finishing one’s education, becoming financially independent – these milestones are still associated with people in their late teens and early twenties.  However this article suggests these milestones, for many people, are now not being met even in their 20s or 30s.  Marriage and having children are happening much later in life on average or are not happening at all.   While getting married or having children is now more commonly viewed as a lifestyle choice, pursuing higher education is more common than ever before.  Pursuing more education and professional opportunities are cited as factors in causing this shift.  As the average age for one’s first marriage has shot up across all ethnic and income groups, the number of children born outside of marriage is at 40 percent, up from 28 percent in 1990 showing that this shift is broad and it’s redefining adulthood not only in terms of when but in terms of how.

This article is helpful for understanding the changing needs of this age group (those in their 20s and 30s).  For example, the article mentions the Obama administration’s new rule which allows ‘children’ to remain on their parent’s health insurance until age 26.  This new rule considers the many people in their early twenties who are still financially dependent on and living with their parent/s.  While the health insurance is on example of this shift, the p-prim still commonly held by society that adulthood starts around eighteen is obscuring the failure of many institutions to properly address the needs of those in their 20s and 30s who are still on their road to adulthood.

The article mentions community colleges as one such failure.  While the exact failure is not specified in the article, the question of higher education and financial independence is certainly tied to this argument.  With students graduating with more debt than ever before and the cost of four-year institutions on the rise, declaring financial independence sooner, not later, might actually benefit students in terms of financial aid.  Age is a large factor in determining when a student can be considered for federal aid programs without taking the financial information of a student’s parents into consideration.

The drawn out road to adulthood may have emotional ramifications and support for this has already been commodified.  Books written in the early 2000s about the ‘quarter-life crisis’ which mirrors the more familiar, ‘mid-life crisis’ is rooted in the anxiety people in their twenties might feel from not having achieved as much as their parents did by their age or as much as their peers appear to be achieving.

Conceptual Design: Just as institutions such as health insurance are adjusting to meet the needs of this population, designers must consider this audience as having different goals and lifestyle choices as their predecessors.  If designing a product for an “adult” it might be critical to understand that age for the lifestyle choices associated with such a term has shifted and therefore previous market research about a man in his early twenties fifty years ago may not be as relevant to describe a man in his early twenties today.

Interaction Design: How a product works (such as the health insurance example) might need to be adjusted if distinctions are made based on age or “adulthood”.  Age requirements may need to be redrawn.  Knowing that the majority of moms today (54%) have a college education could result in a growing popularity of educational toys for babies and children.

Interface Design: With people waiting until later in life to marry or have children, these users may prefer to see products with pictures of people that reflect their age.  Ads on Facebook and MySpace might choose to run advertisements for education programs rather than baby products for a user in their early twenties.   Similarly, considering marriage and children a lifestyle choice, movies can utilizes this shift, such as “The Backup Plan” in which Jennifer Lopez plays a single woman in her 40s getting inseminated only to meet ‘Mister Right’ at the wrong time.  The rules of romantic comedy have not changed but the setting is changing to reflect this shift towards a later or redefined adulthood.