Skip to content

When Is Your Child Really a Grownup?

It's an uphill climb for many millennials to stand on their own

Definition of an Adult

Getty Images

Generation Uphill struggling to fill full-fledged adulthood shoes

A recent Economist cover story labeled the world's 1.8 billion young people Generation Uphill. The entire issue focused on millennials and the challenges they face in both developing and wealthy countries.

The articles argue that while young people have many advantages, they still face a sometimes daunting future, thanks to an extremely competitive job market, huge student loan debt and expensive housing. "The path to adulthood — from school to work, marriage and children — has become longer and more complicated," according to the newspaper.

So what exactly defines adulthood? Atlantic health editor Julie Beck addresses the question in a recent magazine article, "When Are You Really an Adult?" In sum, she writes: "Adulthood altogether is an Impressionist painting — if you stand far enough away, you can see a blurry picture. But if you press your nose to it, it's millions of tiny strokes. Imperfect, irregular but indubitably part of a greater whole."

Until the last decade or so, adulthood was achieved by hitting a number of markers: job, home, marriage and children. But that version of adulthood has only existed since the end of World War II because of demographic changes. Before then, many young people returned home until they married, the same as record numbers of today's millennials, according to several Pew Research Center studies. Even after adult children leave the nest, parents continue to support them.

When do people truly call themselves adults? In the Atlantic piece, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, the research professor who coined the term "emerging adults," identifies the "Big Three" hallmarks as taking responsibility for yourself, making independent decisions and becoming financially independent.

Another expert, Cornell University professor Anthony Burrow, finds that commitment to a purpose helps young people form an identity, which often is a major step to seeing themselves as adults. And Kelly Williams Brown, author of Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps, says adulthood comes with "taking care of people, taking care of things and taking care of yourself."

A survey of my New York University undergrad class revealed that most thought they could call themselves adults once they support themselves and pay their own bills (although a little parental help didn't totally negate that). They also mentioned making their own major decisions without consulting parents or changing their minds because of parental objections.

I have asked the adulthood question before in a class I teach on millennials. My favorite answer: "When I file and pay my own taxes."

Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. An NYU journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at Mothering21.