The root cause of the new, delayed adulthood

I woke up at 4am today to write. I’ve been doing that as a way to get time alone. It was great for a while, until my youngest son started waking up at 5am.

I said, “Can you think of something to do by yourself?”

Now he wakes up at 5am and composes music.

Who is this kid? He practices cello two hours a day. He practices piano a half hour a day. And now he’s composing music.

His composition teacher told him to write five bars of music. He has written fifty. And it reminds me of when I was in second grade and my teacher told us to write a one-page story. I wrote fifty pages. About a family that drives to Kansas. I couldn’t get to a satisfying resolution so the story just went on.

What I discovered is that I loved the process of writing. I didn’t care that the story would never end.

I realize that what my writing showed me is the same thing that my younger son’s compositions show: kids figure out what they should be doing by trying lots of stuff and then doing more of what is right for them.

If I were arguing in favor of school I’d say that forcing kids to do a lot of stuff they don’t like in school makes it more likely that they’ll stumble on what they do like. And this is largely how the workplace functions in one’s early 20s. You have no idea what you like so you do a wide range of entry level work until you stumble on something.

But then I think most of our work life isn’t this way. Most of our work life we know what we like and we teach ourselves the next thing we need to know in our path to mastery.

After age 25 or so, everyone has had enough time outside of school to start managing their own learning. They don’t need to do a range of things they don’t like to know what they do like.

So in fact, the painful extension of childhood well into everyone’s 20s that the New York Times calls emerging adulthood is actually the result of school being so completely irrelevant to life that kids are recuperating from it instead of living adult life.

But emerging adulthood is actually a relatively new concept from the 90s. So maybe, for the first half of the 20th century, school was good preparation for work because most people were factory workers or ladder climbers. But today most of us are knowledge workers, trying to recover from a childhood that goes on forever because school didn’t prepare us for what’s ahead.

21 replies
  1. Vanessa
    Vanessa says:

    I couldn’t agree more. This reminds me of the 10,000-hour rule and the longer we delay the process the later we emerge into adulthood. School delays the process.

  2. Daphne Gray-Grant
    Daphne Gray-Grant says:

    My son (who is severely dyslexic) also started composing music at age 10. Here’s the happy development: He no longer composes music but he’s training to become an opera singer.

    We homeschooled him his entire life and this had so many benefits for him:

    (1) It got him INTO university because he was able to apply using a portfolio rather than grades. (Despite his great intelligence, He would have done poorly in school because of his multiple learning disabilities.)

    (2) It gave him time to explore music — taking piano, composing and voice lessons — during regular school hours so he could figure out exactly what interested him the most about music.

    (3) It gave him a leg up on some of his university classes as he was so much further ahead because of his lifelong concentration. One four-semester class, for example (called “musicianship”) he was able to complete in two semesters because he could challenge two of the exams. It was his vast experience with the piano that allowed him to do this.

    I would also like to add item #4 although to be fair, I have no proof of this. It’s my firm belief that if we had forced him to go to school (and it would have required forcing) he would have become seriously depressed and we would have been dealing with major mental health issues on top of his learning disabilities.

    Homeschooling SAVED my son and has given him a significant level of mastery before the age of 20.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I appreciate the idea of kids spending time doing something that is not necessarily the thing they will spend their life on, but it opens new doors. Trying hard at something opens doors – whether or not you turn out to be the most gifted person at the world at the thing you are trying hard at.


  3. Sheela Clary
    Sheela Clary says:

    Exactly. I am 41 and still recuperating from 21 years of elite private school. I am helpless without grades and external approval. Adulthood is too late to teach someone the value of pursuing learning for its own sake, too late to convince someone to trust their own instincts, trust there their love and focus go.

  4. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    As a 27-year-old with a liberal arts degree, an okay job and a resume without a clear distinct specialized focus, I’m fascinated by analysis of “emerging adulthood” and its root causes and potential consequences.

    I think there are two big factors – one is simply the recession, and the way it derailed and delayed a generation should not be underestimated, despite some of its success stories of startups and entrepreneurs and such. It was a huge factor.

    But the sort of “childhood root cause” is the issue that really fascinates me. I am such a product of sheltered, overprotective 90s parenting, though I was less scheduled and less self-esteemed than many of my peers and actually did get a fair amount of time to just read and write creatively, and I can’t see that that free time has yet paid off in any sort of tangible career way. Strong organizational skills and the ability to stay on task are still highly valued everywhere, no matter how laissez-faire the work environment may appear from the outside. I do think school and helicoptor parenting prepared at least a certain type of person to be successful in a very, very detail-oriented and specialized world. So on some level I’m disagreeing with your premise.
    But when it comes to the postponing of things like marriage/families/settling into city, I was struck awhile back by an article that referenced movies like “The Goonies” and “Stand by Me” and “The Sandlot,” and then pointed out how utterly removed the level of freedom the child protoganists of those movies is to the actual experience of most middle-class-and-above American millenials.
    The author theorized that the tendency for 20somethings to cluster in tightknight friend-groups in big cities is a sort of subconscious attempt to create the type of running-around-in-a-pack-of-friends experience none of us really had growing up in the 90s, but that we saw everywhere in our favorite books and movies.

    That made a lot of sense to me.

    With all the talk of competitive globalization, I wonder how millenials’ scheduled, overschooled, cloistered and protected childhoods are going to stack up next to the life experiences of millenials from India and China. I taught in English in South Korea to middle schoolers from 2010-2012, and while they did indeed study long and hard in the way Americans assume East Asians do, there was also a total “Goonie culture” where groups of middle school (and younger) students would roam town after school, getting snacks in convenience stores, hanging out with each other, riding the bus, having the sort of little adventures that seem insignificant but are, I think, what actually prepares you for adulthood.

  5. marie-helene
    marie-helene says:

    I’m an adult in my early twenties experiencing this phase of “trying out lots of different things to see what I like.” But they are hobbies, and I appreciate that I can explore them in solitude without being confronted with a million questions about how I’m going to monetise my passions.

    I have a career, I studied for my career, and I am good at what I have chosen to do.

    The issue lies, I’m starting to think, in telling young children that what they “do” for a living is what defines their time, and that there is no space after that for things like composing music at 6am just because it’s fun and interesting.

  6. Linda Lou
    Linda Lou says:

    So homeschooling is better preparation for anyone who isn’t destined to work in a factory.

    But sadly by the time we parents figure out that homeschool is better, our kids are half grown and we’re in a profession that can’t be done from home. So we all continue with this arrangement which is dysfunctional and inadequate preparation for our kids.

  7. Jen
    Jen says:

    Pretty much what Linda Lou above says.

    It stinks to be in an arrangement that you know is not working but not sure how to get unstuck from the position you were trained for

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I like to think this blog is about how to get unstuck. I had to figure out a whole new way of living in order to homeschool. I used to work 80 hour weeks outside the home. And I’m the breadwinner. So I am hoping that as you see me taking risks and giving a lot of stuff up you will be able to make decisions in a similar way – we can all take risks and give stuff up in order to get out of a muddle. The more people we see doing it, the more brave we can be together.


  8. Blair MacGregor
    Blair MacGregor says:

    Melissa said: I think there are two big factors – one is simply the recession, and the way it derailed and delayed a generation should not be underestimated, despite some of its success stories of startups and entrepreneurs and such. It was a huge factor.

    In the past, times of economic hardship triggered a push toward maturity and self-responsibility, not a delay of adulthood. The societal delay of adulthood–along with the lack of teaching and experience that encourages resilience and self-reliance–set up many of the generation just wait until the situation somehow improved.

    • Violet
      Violet says:

      I wonder whose economic hardship is critical for maturity here. People who lose their safety net (i.e., parents) often mature early and take responsibility. People who have it, take the time to wait out adversity.

      Parental safety net is a critical factor during this recession compared to the past recessions. Most parents didn’t have huge gains in the equity of their primary home just before the crash at other times.

    • Lindsay
      Lindsay says:

      Blair, I guess that depends on how you define adulthood. Historically, there is a correlation between age of marriage/having the first child and economic adversity – in harder times, people have done these things later than in easier times. It takes longer to gather up the resources to function as an adult.

      • Blair MacGregor
        Blair MacGregor says:

        It does depend upon the definition, I agree. I see marriage and childraising as things that happen in adulthood, but not indications of it.

        Adulthood is instead the state of self-responsibility. I understand living with one’s extended family in times of need–I’ve done so myself for short periods–but it doesn’t need to be a stalling or derailing. It is instead an opportunity to pool resources, work toward common goals, and build a solid foundation.

        The recession was not kind to my family. My teenaged son learned what it was like to live in poverty. He instead learned self-reliance, gained the ability to work hard, and learned to adjust his plans as needed. At seventeen, he holds a job with responsibilities and is researching how to start his own business. He’s willing to make his own opportunities *before* the opportunities created by others are abundant.

        And really, I hope this doesn’t come across as preachy. Alas, tone doesn’t always carry well in text. It’s an observation. It’s knowing many young people who are willing to just wait things out rather than struggle ahead, and I know many of my agemates are more than willing to permit that.

  9. Q
    Q says:

    I was just talking about this with my mother the other day! I look at it as deschooling, you always hear about that in terms of pulling children out of school before unschooling can begin, and I think it applies to this “emerging adulthood” of my generation as well. We have been in school too damn long. Deschooling is the logical next step. My other thought was that it’s also a part of human evolution. People are living longer than ever, I imagine many will live to be 120 years old not long from now. If we live longer, wouldn’t it make sense for there to be a longer adolescence? I think so. No science to back me up, so maybe this is just crazy talk, but, hey, can’t blame me for having an imagination!

  10. Tiffanie
    Tiffanie says:

    A child doing what works is showing a particular genius. I am reminded of Jiro Dreams of Sushi which is available at for the next few weeks.

  11. Kimberly
    Kimberly says:

    Another great post! This comes at a great time when I just learned how to argue with my mother about the homeschooling subject that she can’t stop bringing up. One word answers rule!

    Back on topic, because school is a babysitting service you are simply a baby for 18 years. It pains me to watch 14- 18 year old high school “boys” who look like men, walking out of the school yards. This infantilization that we create with school children is so, obviously, not for their benefit. Teachers keep them babies so that they can go along with the class session without interruption.

    They force irrelevant and painfully useless subjects on kids, not to prepare them for the real world, but for the benefit of the teachers who are too busy to be bothered with individualized education.

    This is why it took me so long to finish college and find out what I wanted to do because they key to my education was to simply complete it. I didn’t really have to learn anything that would prepare me for the world.

    It all comes together when you see school as just a glorified babysitting service because all the bells and whistles of state standards, curriculum and testing are just there to keep the parents happy while the kids are just there to be out of the way.

    This is why homeschoolers are very focused and often succeed at their accomplishments at a young age. Their education is about them, not about pleasing a school board.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      It’s a great way of stating the situation, if school is a babysitting service then sending teens to school is telling them to act like babies. Clearly they are old enough to not go. Thanks for the nice clear logic, Kimberly.


  12. mh
    mh says:

    We’ve been traveling for weeks visiting family, and all the cousins have gone back to school. So now it’s us and our kids, and their grandparents. And that’s fine. The fun is just beginning.

    But to your point, Kimberly, the first day scheduled for the cousins to go back to school was canceled because of snow. The parents were miserable — their reaction was exactly the “school is babysitting” model.

    I try not to give too many people significant looks. We are the only homeschool family on either side. But the stereotypes of compulsory school prove true, anecdotally.

  13. kathleen
    kathleen says:

    An important part of homeschooling is that my kids are around to help with the menial chores. I can even send them to the store. This frees up time for me to prep/teach them exactly what I want them to learn. Before, I was doing scut-work all day, and leaving their education to a faceless bureaucracy. Then at night during homework I was forced to teach them what the school wanted me to teach. All of us were slaves to the school, and all of us had a lot less free time. in my opinion, outside schooling holds no up-side for families.

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