More and more, American college students wish they could retreat to childhood’s less anxious times, though whether it’s due simply the fear of crushing student loan debt or existential threats such as climate change, global economic uncertainty, and the pressures of outsourced labor remain open questions.
From the British Psychology Society:
In Western democracies, young adults are living with their parents for longer, spending more time in education and delaying having children So much so that some commentators have suggested that we need a new term, such as “emerging adulthood”, to describe the phase of life between late adolescence and true adulthood. Adding to this picture, a new cross-generational study [$36 to read] in International Journal of Behavioural Development of hundreds of undergrads at two US universities finds that students today are more anxious about growing up and maturing than students from previous generations.
April Smith and her colleagues took advantage of data collected from male and female students at a northeastern private university in 1982, 1992, 2002 and 2012 when they were aged around 20, that included their answers to four statements about “fears of maturity”. Specifically, the students rated their agreement with items like “I wish that I could return to the security of childhood” and disagreement with items like “I feel happy that I am not a child anymore” (the questions were part of a larger investigation into eating disorders). The researchers also had access to similar data from female students at a large public university in southeastern USA collected in 2001, 2003, 2009 and 2012.
The results from both universities revealed a clear trend – students today have more fears about maturing than students of the same age in previous generations. The researchers said this was a worrying result because fear of maturity is associated with negative outcomes including poorer psychological wellbeing.
Quite why today’s students have an increased reluctance to leave their childhoods behind remains open to speculation because as the researchers put it: “empirical studies on adolescents’ and young adults’ fears related to the natural ageing process are almost entirely absent from the literature.” Smith and her team suggest that these fears might in some ways be a realistic response to changing circumstances, including the recent global economic recession. Also contemporary students’ reluctance to grow up might be related to changes to parenting styles – for instance, research from the UK shows that parents today are less willing to take risks, as revealed by the drastic reduction in the number of children permitted to walk to school on their own.
It’s not clear how far we can generalise these results beyond US undergrads to non-students or young adults in other cultures. It’s also worth noting that it’s possible that all age groups today (not just young adults) are more anxious about ageing than were people of a similar age in previous eras. Still, as Smith and her colleagues put it, the new findings certainly suggest that “today’s emerging adults seem reluctant to take on life’s next chapter” and that we perhaps need to do more to remind them that “maturity’s wisdom, knowledge and experience are precious, hard-won and nothing to fear.”