It used to be pretty cut-and-dried: eighteen was the age of voting, the age of consent, and the age of legal autonomy. At eighteen, legally, and in most respects, we became adults.
Certainly Big Tobacco agrees with the “Adult at 18” concept. But access to alcohol, nationally, sets the adult age at 21. Most rental car companies won’t rent to people under 25. The recent healthcare reform allows parents to keep kids under their plan through 26, and the average age of marriage in the US is now 27 for women and 30 for men. To note, in 1960, the average age of marriage for women was 20, and was 22 for men. Think about that for a moment!
With such a broad and dynamic range of “adulthood”, it’s harder and harder to figure out when a “young adult” should move towards independence - and what that independence should look like. As with most things, the edges of the distribution are easily identified and distinguished, one from the other. Twelve is definitely still a child and 35 is definitely an adult. It’s the middle that can get a little fuzzier.
Slate just ran an interesting article about Millennials and (not) Cord Cutting - virtual cords, of course, which makes sense, given that Slate’s target demographic is definitely a wireless generation. Interestingly, but maybe not surprisingly, the author (a Millennial) came down solidly in favor of staying electronically, and financially, tethered to her family, despite being a 26-year old published author. And I get it, I really do. If I was a (statistically normed) Millennial just getting out of college, saddled with a crippling student loan, staring down a lackluster job market and investigating costly cell-phone plans that offered only limited data streaming and high penalties for overages, I think I’d be pretty tempted to stick with my parents’ family plan. I’d also (as the author does) probably keep mooching off of their Netflix account, and would be pretty happy if they also wanted to keep my car and health insurance under their umbrella.
Who wouldn’t!? It’s pragmatics, really. But is it healthy? Is it promoting independence? Is it responsible? Does this young, bright, articulate Millennial represent a generation of entitlement? Does she really deserve to have a cell phone at 26 if she can’t also make the financial choices in her life which will prioritize that goal, on her own dime? What does using her parents' Netflix password to stream Season 3 of House of Cards really mean for her generation, and for her parents’? Does she really not have the $7.99/mo for her own account? Sure, it’s easy, and Netflix doesn’t (yet) seem to care, but do we really need our media and telecom companies to cut the cords, to effectively legislate young-adult autonomy before we’ll ask ourselves “When do I change the password?” Is holding a Netflix boundary the new litmus test for adulthood?
I’ll admit that I’m nostalgic, but I don't think it’s sentimental. I still think that the price of independence is responsibility, and that one reality of responsibility includes forcing ourselves to live within our means. And sometimes that means going without until we can afford what we want. I’m concerned that we could be stifling our young adults’ capacity to feel, and authentically be independent by not allowing them, or compelling them when necessary, to also be responsible for their own consumption (digital and otherwise). As for precisely when that time comes, and at what age that starts, I will consent that that is best decided through an open and ongoing conversation between young adults and their parents. 12 is definitely too young. 35 is definitely too old. But in between, an active, honest, and dynamic conversation which is moving a young adult down the continuum of autonomy can help ensure that everyone will be well-prepared when you finally do change your Netflix password.
ABOUT THE AUTHORJake Weld holds a masters degree in education and has over twenty years of experience in traditional, LD, and therapeutic schools, adolescent and young adult programs, and conventional, wilderness, and residential settings. He has served as the Executive Director of a therapeutic boarding school, the Assistant Headmaster of a specialized LD boarding school, and as the Academic and Program Director of various schools and programs. He is currently the Director of Admissions and Business Development for Mansfield Hall, a specialized college support program in Burlington, VT, and Madison, WI.