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A Longer Road To Adulthood

A Longer Road To Adulthood

For businesses looking to innovate, organizations hoping to creatively address society’s problems, and parents worried about their adult children’s success, Ilona Dougherty’s perspective is what you have been waiting for. The co-founder of Apathy is Boring, she speaks to audiences internationally about about redefining intergenerational relationships and tapping into the innovation potential of Millennials and Gen Z. Below, Ilona writes on how students are staying in school longer, and what that means for the traditional path of “adulthood”:

Francis Gosselin has a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and a PhD, but he feels like he is not quite finished with his education. For him, the path from school to work is not as linear as his father’s was.

“My father did a bachelor’s; then at 22 or 23 he got a job and worked for 40 years and now he is retired,” says Dr. Gosselin. “Our relationship to education has changed.”

The serial entrepreneur has launched businesses and non-profits both in Canada and France (including Failcamp, an initiative that celebrates failure as a part of learning). He doesn’t identify with the traditional definition of what it means to be an adult.

Typically, becoming an adult meant reaching five major milestones: finishing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having a child.

But Dr. Gosselin and his friends are not reaching these milestones until much later than their parents and grandparents did.

“All of my friends, some are having kids, some are buying houses, some are not, some are travelling the world, some are staying with their parents, and we are all in our 30s or late 20s,” says Dr. Gosselin.

Many people think the economy and a lack of jobs are the reasons young people are not launching into traditional adulthood, but many experts argue that the real reason is that young people are choosing to spend more time in postsecondary education instead.

“More people have been going to college, and even getting advanced degrees, which, of course, stretches that gap in between adolescence and adulthood,” says academic Seth Schwartz, an expert in emerging adulthood.

Dr. Schwartz, who is president of the international academic organization the Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood, thinks that part of the reason young people aren’t reaching these milestones at a young age has to do with fundamental societal shifts, not economics. “In the 1960s and 1970s … there was almost no gap between the end of adolescence and the beginning of adulthood. All that started to change in the late seventies, eighties and certainly the nineties,” he says.

Why? Modern jobs required more training. At the same time, social and sexual revolutions made it more normal, especially for women, to prioritize education over getting married and having children. And so starting a career, and adulthood, got pushed “off into the horizon,” says Dr. Schwartz.

Does more education mean a better life?

If staying in school longer is a key reason millennials are delaying adulthood, is the payoff of postsecondary education worth it?

Dr. Schwartz argues that we are likely to see the age at which young people reach adulthood continue to rise, and that this social and economic gap between adolescence and adulthood does have negative consequences, especially for young people themselves.

Young people “are left to figure things out,” Dr. Schwartz says. There is “more emphasis on the individual person to navigate their way.” This can be empowering, but it can also be challenging. In Canada, the 2011 census found that 42.3 per cent of 20 to 29-year-olds live at home, either because they never left or because they have returned after leaving for a period of time. This is compared to 26.9 per cent in 1981.

But despite the challenges, Ross Finnie argues university is still worth it. He is the director of the Education Policy Research Initiative at the University of Ottawa, which offers a new perspective on postsecondary graduate outcomes by comparing postsecondary education records and tax data.

“Students are still doing pretty well.”

This whole thing about everyone being stuck behind a coffee counter is totally refuted by the data,” says Dr. Finnie, adding that even arts, humanities and social sciences graduates are beating expectations. His research found that someone with a social science degree will net an average salary of $80,000 13 years after graduation.

The payoffs of a postsecondary education remain hard to refute. And yet millennials are still maligned for choosing to delay the traditional milestones of adulthood in the pursuit of higher education. So, is it time to redefine what it means to finish your education and grow up?

In researching his book Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett spoke to emerging adults who told him that adulthood, these days, is less about marriage and kids. For them, adulthood is about accepting responsibility for yourself, making independent decisions and becoming financially independent, says Dr. Arnett, a professor of psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

Janelle Hardy is an artist with a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and a variety of other training under her belt. She defied the trends by hitting all five traditional milestones of adulthood by the age of 28, while in the midst of her studies.

Still, Ms. Hardy, who now curates an artists-in-residence program, agrees with what Dr. Arnett saw in his research. Reflecting on what she sees among her peers, she says, “These traditional milestones … are not things that everyone does any more.”

Dr. Gosselin recently reached a milestone of his own: he bought a home. But his newfound adulthood might not stick. “I don’t feel more rooted than when I was [a student].”

Ilona Dougherty and Amelia Clarke/Globe and Mail/October, 2016