Youth Culture Window

Extended Adolescence

Maybe you got inklings something might be amiss when a growing number of your recently graduated high school seniors…kept coming back to youth group.

Oh, it was no biggie that first summer when they were either prepping for their freshmen years at college or doing the ol’ first-time, full-time job search—or none of the above. You were actually happy to see them drop by for weekly Bible studies like they’d done the previous four years—and you were excited for them as they prepared to embark on their brand-new lives as a wide-open vista of possibilities unfolded before them each day.

But when the cool snap of autumn came, they kept wiggling their ways back into the high school youth group shell after being officially hatched in June. Well, maybe the New Year will turn their eyes toward the future, you figure. Wrong-o. Not to be. Spring came…and so did your grads. Then that second summer. That second year. All the way through college.

“They’re coming baaack, baaack, baaaaack…NOT outta here!”

Eventually you grew hoarse lecturing twentysomethings—donned in business attire and construction garb, looking crestfallen at the entryway to a youth room filled with endlessly hip teens snickering at “all the old people trying to get in”— that they might want to check out the college and career group. (“And quit wearing those David Crowder goatees! You can’t fool me, Methuselah!”) 

If this describes your youth group alums, retire now.

(I can be flip mostly because the latter canard does not in all likelihood describe your youth group alumni nor your experience with them, save for maybe a kid here or there who never wanted lock-ins to end and hung on a little too long before finally letting go.)

But the trend is no joke. Experts have assigned it a number of monikers: “Kidults,” “adultescence,” the ultra-diplomatic “emerging adulthood,” as well as “extended adolescence” (a lot of parents probably call it other things we can’t print here). Put simply, it’s the notion that the “teenage years” don’t really end at 20, 21, or 22. More accurately, they’re stretching more and more into the late 20s and even into the 30s.

Many in the age range of 20 through 34 are taking a good number of extra years than ever before to accomplish…well, most everything. You already knew that young people are waiting longer and longer to get married and have children—and you’ve heard about enough seventh-year college seniors to start performing your own Van Wilder stand-up routine.

But those in this age range are also biding their time when it comes to solidifying careers and financial solvency, said Frank F. Furstenberg, leader of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, in a recent 
New York Times

“A new period of life is emerging in which young people are no longer adolescents but not yet adults,” Furstenberg told the Times. 

Marriage and Family
In fact, according to a new report released by Princeton University and the Brookings Institution, marriage and parenthood—seemingly forever viewed as cornerstones of adult status—are now seen as nothing more than lifestyle choices. (“I’m Marty, and I enjoy parasailing, Abe Lincoln lookalike contests, Abba, student assemblies, fatherhood, and my fresh wife Bobbie…” etc.)

Indeed the median age for a first marriage was 23 in 1980—now it’s 27 for men and 26 for women, the highest on record. And a recent Pew Research Center report found a broad trend toward delaying motherhood over the last 20 years that cuts across all races and ethnic and income groups, the Timesreported.

A whopping 40 percent of births these days are to unmarried mothers, a 28 percent leap since 1990. In addition more women are avoiding motherhood—one in five over the age of 40 do not have kids, Furstenberg told the Times, adding that “not having children would have been considered bizarre or tragic in the ’50s.”

(Still) Dependent on Da ’Rents
With the meteoric increase in the number of youths attending college today—not to mention the explosion of higher-ed costs with every passing year—more college-age people (and older if they’re still paying off student loans) are dependent on their parents for monetary support. And just what do they receive from Mommy and Daddy? The MacArthur network found that adults between 18 and 34 received from their parents an average of $38,000 as well as the equivalent of two years’ of full-time labor—or about 10 percent of their income,according to the Times.

No surprise, then, that while new research shows that before the 1990s parents appeared to invest most in children during their teen years, their spending patterns began to change before the turn of the millennium. Now, Furstenberg told the Times, parental cash flow peaks when children are either very young or in their mid-20s.

And more twentysomethings these days—often as the ink’s still drying on their college diplomas—are moving back in with their parents…and not necessarily on a temporary basis. About a quarter of 25-year-old white males lived at home in 2007 compared with about 20 percent in 2000, and less than an eighth in 1970, the Times said. With the lingering recession, figures for 2008, 2009, and 2010 are likely to be much higher.

Some Twentysomethings Just Want to Have Fun
While the stats and studies tend to paint a bleak picture of extended adolescence, some sociologists see it in a positive light. “This is the one time of their lives when they’re not responsible for anyone else or to anyone else,” developmental psychologist Jeffrey Arnett told Boundless webzine []. “[Kidults] have this wonderful freedom to really focus on their own lives and work on becoming the kind of person they want to be. Enjoy it…Once it goes, it ain’t coming back. Sooner or later, you’ll have a family, a mortgage, and a retirement plan.”

Full disclosure: I was there myself. Like many of my peers, my parents are divorced, so I decided in my teen years that I’d enter into marriage and family very slowly and cautiously. Boy, talk about hitting that one out of the park! After graduate school I spent about five years on a whimsical journey of self discovery in which I played in a couple of rock bands, saw a lot of (much better) rock bands in smoky urban dives several times a week, made a just-above-the-poverty-line living as a non-committed freelance newspaper reporter, lived in attics and dirt-cheap studios, stayed up really late, slept in really late, spent a small fortune repairing an unreliable ’81 Toyota Corolla, wrote songs and poetry and rambling journal entries, all culminating with a four-month solo car trip around the United States when I was 28 and a seat-of-my-pants move from Philly to Chicago in the dead of winter. I didn’t get my first real job until I was 29, didn’t get married until I was 36, and didn’t have my first child until I was 41. Researchers conduct surveys to get this kind of data—I don’t have to travel any further than the mirror.

The big question: Did I benefit from my own extended adolescence? While part of me would have preferred being a dad in my late 20s rather than my early 40s (especially when newborn 3 a.m. feedings were in full swing), I have to say that I milked my lack of responsibility for all it was worth and got to do a bunch of things I’ll probably never get to do again—my memories of that time are thick and mostly positive. So, yes, I believe I benefitted.

Does extended adolescence benefit every partaker? I doubt it.

How Does Extended Adolescence Affect Youth Ministry?
Youth ministry veteran Mark Oestreicher has written about this subject a number of times, touching on it most significantly in his 2008 book, Youth Ministry 3.0. While there’s plenty of data and surveys and studies on extended adolescence, Oestreicher’s insights in regard to the relationship between this phenomenon and youth ministry prove most helpful. In a recent blog post [], he offers two significant points:


  1. Extended adolescence isn’t the fault of young people. “Sure, there are slackers. I’m guessing there always have been. But I think it’s wiser for us to examine ourselves, our culture, our churches, our homes, and stop pointing the finger of judgment at 20-somethings. We’ve—collectively—created the culture that isolates teenagers and young adults from adults and adulthood; we’ve created extended adolescence. They’re merely living into our expectations (‘you’re not yet an adult’).”
  2. The trend is reversible. “What is required? In short: meaningful responsibility and expectation (can you see where this is going, as it pertains to young adults in youth ministry?).”

Now What?
As youth workers, you’re on the front lines of this issue—what you espouse and offer to teens can have the effect of encouraging delayed adolescence or eschewing it. Some suggestions:


  1. Get parents informed immediately. You’re the lifeline to parents, and they’re the lifeline to you. But they listen to what you have to say regarding the development and well being (spiritually and otherwise) of their teenage children. Many of them don’t know a thing about this trend—or at best they’ve only heard surface-level reports. So give them information and make it relevant to them. Help them discover where their children are in terms of extended adolescence—are they candidates? The more information you gather, the better prepared your parents will be to deal with this phenomenon at home should it arise.
  2. Give your students responsibility. As Oestreicher previously suggests, the more often we treat students like adults with adult responsibilities, the more readily they’ll grow into their newfound roles as adults in the church community.
  3. Speaking of church community… Oestreicher also implores us (i.e., the church) to not segregate or marginalize still-emerging adolescents. Somehow as youth workers we need to convince other church leaders that it’s essential to welcome, and encourage those mid-twentysomethings as co-laborers, incorporating them into the daily life of the church in which we share. It’s no stretch to say that the “adolescent extenders” among us will be running the church universal someday, but it necessitates a lot of work now.

So get to it!

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Dave Urbanski

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