Age of growing concerns

April 12, 2001

Making the leap from adolescence to adulthood has never been more difficult, says social psychologist Terri Apter, which is why greater parental support is not only desirable, but essential.

Parents are again being warned that some parenting styles encroach on the freedom of children to explore their world and may encourage an unconscious process of infantilisation. Frank Furedi is among those who warn that, as parents aid and advise their children, they prolong adolescence and undermine the child's aspiration for independence ( THES , March 23). One positive aspect of this warning is that it focuses on a new trend: while children are on the fast track to adolescence, they proceed from adolescence to adulthood at a snail's pace. But, the danger is that condemnation of young people's continued dependence on their parents could deprive them of support that they genuinely need.

Profound structural changes in education, employment and finance affect the rate at which young people become adults. Good jobs require lengthy training. Career choices are complicated by the variety of jobs on offer, changing employment patterns and an uncertain economy. Setting up an independent household is often beyond the financial reach even of young adults in employment.

Leaving home is now a prolonged process. According to figures published by the Economic and Social Research Council in 1997, 58 per cent of young people between the ages of 22 and 24 live with their parents. Some 30 per cent of those aged between 24 and 30 are still at home. On average, it takes a young adult between five and ten years to shift from a parent's to their own home.

This extended transition is not a consequence of over-protective parenting. The increasing complexity of adult life requires a longer apprenticeship. In a culture that places independence in high esteem, young people want to make decisions - but unaided, feel stuck. Unable to see a viable way ahead, they often downsize their ambitions or drift into unsatisfying jobs. When parents use their knowledge and experience to guide and advise their nearly grown children, they perform a valuable function.

In my four-year study of 32 people in their early 20s, those who continued to have emotional and practical support from parents were far more likely to navigate this transition smoothly than were young people whose parents insisted that they should be grown up, independent and on their own. They were more likely to achieve their educational goals, more confident and more likely to take logical steps towards their career ambitions.

But parents' good, protective impulses are being challenged by the myth of maturity and the myth of the spoiled child. The first is shaped by the assumption that adulthood should follow closely on the heels of adolescence. It is a myth that sets up independence as an ideal and equates a relationship offering support with one of debilitating dependence. Under its weight, parents who continue to offer help are accused of "infantilisation". The myth of maturity is then conjoined with that of the spoiled child, that parents harm their offspring by continuing to give support and care. It rests on the assumption that adults undermine the young person by providing what he or she needs.

Today's adolescents are growing up amid decreasing social capital. They participate in and are supported by fewer social networks. They will change friends and neighbourhoods frequently as they embark on university courses and careers. Their most stable relationship during this period of their lives is likely to be with a parent, and the protection parents continue to provide is a life-line.

The cultural disapproval cast upon young people in this phase of life is evident from the labels researchers tag onto them. They are called "Peter Pan adults" or "parasitic singles". Having observed young people struggle with frustrated ideals of maturity, I decided to call them "thresholders". They stand in a legitimate space between adolescence and adulthood, pilloried only because it was once not there and is still without a name. We are looking at a new phase of development in which progress is staggered and unpredictable. Some thresholders have good jobs, but feel too unsettled to have a steady partner. Some have higher degrees, but live in a parent's home. Some are themselves parents, but need their parents' support to establish themselves as employable adults. Parents' tolerance for this uneven mix of maturity allows thresholders to manage their frustration.

The thresholders in my study spoke of their need for a parent's faith in their future self. They sought a parent's practical help with the proliferation of choices in education and career. They wanted to sustain a sense of attachment to the family. If parents buy into the myth of maturity, they will, in the name of love, refuse exactly the continued parenting that today's teenagers need.

Terri Apter is a social psychologist at Cambridge University and author of The Myth of Maturity: What Teenagers Need from Parents to Become Adults (W. W. Norton), published later in the year.

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