Tuesday, February 24, 2015

What Does "Adulthood" Look Like These Days?

I'm reflecting on the notion of adulthood this week after a flurry of cultural norms surrounding the topic intersected and met with conflict in front of me.

It started when I posted on Facebook to ask for advice on how to respond to parents wanting information about students' college classroom performances against their children's wishes. While I knew that FERPA policies wouldn't allow such sharing, I was more interested in what the appropriate response should be.

I got a lot of comments (maybe even some of you reading this, so thanks), and I was interested in how different they were. Many people reacted with horror that such "helicopter" parenting was happening at the college level. Others sympathized with the parent and reflected on their own experiences as parents of college-aged children. The drastic range of responses left me wondering what was at the heart of this debate, and I think it's the concept of adulthood itself.

The Millennial Generation (of which many--but certainly not all or even most in some classes--of my students are a part) has made big splashes about its delayed treatment of adulthood. This Atlantic article on the topic cites the perfect storm of increased college enrollment (and, with it, rising debt) along with decreased job opportunities as the culprit:
If school years delayed financial independence, the Great Recession just about shattered it. Due to economic conditions, 24% of young adults have moved back in with their parents for a significant period of time. "Among those ages 25 to 29, the share moving back home rises to 34%," Pew reports. One in three!
The new economic reality is changing the way we think about adulthood. It's not that adulthood has changed, necessarily, but that  the road to financial independence is getting longer and more fraught. In 1993, a Newsweek poll found that 80% of parents said their young children should be financially independent by 22. Now that up to one-third of those very same parents are still living with their kids, one-third of today's parents say children "shouldn't have to be on their own financially until age 25 or later."
As a technical Millennial myself (I was born in 1985), the Millennial experience often wavers between familiar and foreign to me. I doubt its my on-the-cusp birth year that's to blame, though. Instead, I think that growing up in an impoverished household made my experience of adulthood much different from some of my peers. I've consistently had at least one job since I was 15 years old. I was paying for my own car insurance, phone bill, clothes, most food, and some household bills by the time I was 16. My college years were financed entirely through grants, scholarships, and the two jobs I worked as I went to school. I got an apartment with roommates my sophomore year and another one with my now-husband my senior year. Moving back home was never even on the table, and financial dependency was never an option.

I know I'm not the only Millennial who feels adrift when reading descriptions of "my" generation (as Julia Lapidos recently reflected), but I also think that generation trends (like most cultural trends) tend to be mapped along the paths of the relatively wealthy white middle class. My experience is not unique, and I know there are plenty of other people born then and now who are not going to bask in a quarter century (or more) of financial and emotional security.

But that trend has impacted all of us, and now the conversations around adulthood are skewed toward that new normal.

I saw other cultural artifacts floating around this week that connected to this topic.

A series of Progressive insurance commercials operate around the command for viewers to "act your age" by dumping our parents' insurance company and switching to Progressive.

Whenever I drive back to my hometown, I notice a billboard in the sprawling exurbs that features a young white woman's hands holding a cardboard box and implores "MILLENNIALS" who are "sick" of living in our parents' houses to apply for a housing loan.

There have been several articles written about the connection between adulthood and cutting the metaphorical cord on shared services like cell phone plans and Netflix accounts as a signifier of adulthood. 

Where are these pressures coming from? Largely, they're being supported by those with a corporate interest in getting more young people into financial "independence" by tying them down with their own contracts, monthly bills, and increasing debt. But they're doing so by playing on the notion that accruing your own debt is a sign of responsibility and independence. They're cutting to a core American value when they call into question our individuality.

Ironically,  Millennials are actually more individualistic as a whole than previous generations. We marry less and later, have lower levels of trust for others, and value individualistic pursuits like "finding ourselves" and taking selfies.

Whatever one thinks of his/her own individuality, society cares about the money.You're not really an individual, our culture tells us, until you can stand monetarily on your own two feet. Nevermind that this benefits the corporations who depend on those dollars rather than the families who could negotiate more financially responsible arrangements for everything from housing to cell phone bills. After all, in many cultures it's perfectly normal and acceptable for extended families to live together forever, not just until the moment of arbitrary adulthood. What we define as "adult" is as much a function of corporate greed as it is ethics or philosophy. It's always about the money.

This brings us full circle. I started this reflection by thinking about FERPA and parents' rights to see their adult children's college grades. Many who balk at FERPA as overreach do so on economic grounds. If the parent is paying for college, they reason, then the parent has the right to oversee their investment. I suspect this extends further than simply paying tuition as many parents are still providing food, housing, and clothing for their college-aged child even if the bill is being paid through financial aid or scholarships. This article is written by a teacher who works at a school where FERPA doesn't apply, and he reflects on parent-teacher conferences as important pedagogical tools.

And it's worth noting that FERPA was enacted in 1974 in a different generational norm.

Still, I find myself appreciating FERPA as an instructor. I made a conscious choice to teach adults. I value the philosophical differences between teaching adults who have made a choice to come to my classroom rather than children who are required to be present. Many of my students are older than me. Many have had children of their own, built and lost careers, retired, fought in wars, and generally lived adult lives before entering my classroom. It is my policy to only share grade information with the person enrolled in my class. If that student chooses to share that information with a parent, that is up to the student.

I teach adults, but I do understand that parents play a very valuable role in their children's lives, and I can certainly see how younger students who still depend on their parents financially and emotionally may benefit from some parental intrusion in their college performance, so maybe I'm just out of touch with the realities of the new normal.

But if I'm out of touch, so too are our laws which charge these "children" as adults when they commit crimes or the military that encourages them to sign up for the front lines of war. 

If "adulthood" is a moving target, then the policies and regulations that operate around that target must move, too. But we also have to recognize that even if the norm of adulthood trends up, there are still plenty of people who operate well outside of them.

Basically, I thought I had a clear understanding of my own opinion on adulthood and how that arbitrary standard should be impacted by legal codes. But now I'm not so sure. I can see every side of this debate, and I can't quite untangle my own experiences of adulthood from the mix.

What do you think? When is someone an adult and what difference should that make in terms of privacy and autonomy?

Pics: Dominick Gubi, Artotem


  1. I agree with much of this and I've thought about how our meritocracy is undermined as my kids have won their participation medals in soccer and T-Ball. I see FERPA as promoting individualism and it makes me wonder how institutions in other countries handle this matter. I'm always comparing the Arabic (collectivist) culture to my own because I live on the boundary of collectivism/individualism. I'm not too fussed about helicopter parenting (I do adhere to FERPA though) but I do think that the more we take responsibility for ourselves the safer we are from being left adrift if we lose a support system.

  2. I think part of becoming an adult is negotiating these kinds of changes with your parents/children. These negotiations are usually a little more informal, but hitting the FERPA barrier can force the issue before parents (or, I guess, the children) are ready for it. That's their problem to work out, not mine!

  3. The connection to support systems is really important, and I think that's especially true for first-generation college students (like myself) where the support system is quickly going to get disconnected from the new reality.

  4. I like the way you put that. There are plenty of things that can force a confrontation with that barrier sooner rather than later, but that's not my confrontation to do.