Dear Mr. Dad: Back when I was in high school, all I wanted was to be independent. I wanted more responsibility, a job so I could have my own spending money, and I was obsessed with getting a girlfriend. Despite my parents’ warnings, I experimented with drinking alcohol and, well, a few other things. I’m asking because my two teens have zero interest in any of that—and as far as I can tell, neither do their friends. Is there something different about teens today or am I imagining things?
A: You’re not imagining. Teens and young adults these days are very different than we were their age when we were doing many of the things you described. San Diego State University researcher Jean Twenge and her Bryn Mawr College colleague Heejung Park just published a study that confirmed what a lot of us have long suspected: Compared to their parents and grandparents, today’s young people are much less mature, much less interested in taking on the trappings of adulthood (more on that in a minute), and are content to be dependent on their parents for far longer.
The quest for independence starts very early. Remember back when your kids were two and wanted to do everything themselves? And when they were three or four and wanted to do everything we did, whether it was talking on the phone, working on the computer, or washing dishes? That process—of seeking independence and engaging in adult-like activities—continues through adolescence and, theoretically at least, ends at actual adulthood.
But as Twenge and Park found, today’s teens are in no hurry to grow up. Their study looked at teenage behavior going back as far as the mid-to-late 1970s and up through 2016. Let me give you a few examples.
• From 1976-1979, 76% of 12th graders were earning at least some money. From 1990-1994, that number had dropped a little, to 72%. But from 2010-2016, only 55% of teens were earning any money on their own.
• In the 1970s, 88% of 12th graders had a driver’s license, 84% in the early 90s, and just 73% today.
• In the early 1990s, 72% of 10th graders and 84% of 12th graders had ever had a date. Today, only 57% of 10thgraders and 63% of 12th graders have dated.
• In the 1990s, 81% of 12th graders, 72% of 10th graders, and 56% of 8th graders had tried alcohol. Today, those numbers have dropped to 67%, 51%, and 29%, respectively (which is a good thing, in my view). Over that same period, even college-age and post-college young people are refraining from drinking (from 92% in the 90s to 87% today).
• Today’s teens are less likely than those 20 years ago to go out without their parents, to go on dates, or to have sex.
The big question, of course, is Why is this happening? I think some of the decline—particularly in dating and going out without parents—is the result of smartphones and social media. With all the technology that’s available, today’s teens may actually be communicating with each other more than we did at their age. Although, if your goal is to have sex, there’s no substitute for in-person communication. But we can’t blame smartphones for everything. As Twenge and Park write, it’s “unclear how Internet use could cause teens to work less and drink alcohol less.“
I also put some of the blame on parents. Because we’re having children later and we’re having fewer of them, we try to “protect” our “investment” by doing things for them—like giving them money instead of expecting them to earn their own, and driving them everywhere they need to go instead of expecting them to get a license, pay for their own insurance, and drive themselves. Given that, it makes sense to stay young for as long as possible, doesn’t it?
Previously published on Mr. Dad
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