Every student attending NJIT today is legally an adult — that is, over the age of 18. In previous years, this was considered the “hard cut-off” for teenagers, and they were expected to shoulder responsibilities such as holding a job, finding a place to live and starting a family within the next five or six years. This idea was defined in the 1940s and ‘50s, as the United States developed and prospered.
As new factors such as evolving criteria for adulthood, new pathways to traditional success and influence from other parts of the world have begun to determine the trajectory of young adults today, it’s time to reconsider the idea that 20-year-olds can be seen as full-fledged adults.
The first and arguably most important distinction between the mid-20th century and today is the vast increase in the importance of college degrees. In 1940, the U.S. census found that just 4.6% of adults 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree. Today, that number has risen to 36%, almost a ninefold increase. Bachelor’s degrees are usually four-year degrees, as NJIT students know, which are awarded after the completion of high school. The general age of graduation with a bachelor’s degree is 22, compared to 18 for high school graduates. These additional four years continue the education of the student and delay the point at which they find a full-time job.
In today’s society, a degree in higher education is highly valued. The unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree is 2.3% compared to 4.6% for high school graduates. Additionally, bachelor’s degree holders tend to earn more. High school graduates earn only about 62% of the salaries that degree holders of the same age do and may find it difficult to save enough to afford a home or support a family.
In summary, college has become an important time investment that delays the age of starting a career but has rewards including higher pay and more job stability. This means that people start looking for long-term work at age 22 rather than at age 18.
Additionally, the concept of adulthood and independence starting just out of the late teens is a concept that may be limited to the United States and Western Europe. Across the world, including the Middle East and North Africa, East Asia, the Indian subcontinent and Eastern Europe, young adults tend to live with their parents until at least their late 20s, after which they find a job or marry. ABC News reports that in Egypt, it is customary for children to live with their parents until marriage.
In India, it is traditional for students to live with their families at least until they complete their college education and often until they are married as well. The overall age of children moving out of their parents’ home is likely understated in the media as well – even in Europe, the average age of departure is 26.4, and well over 30 in countries like Italy, Portugal, Spain, Bulgaria and others, according to Eurostat. It’s clear that most of the world does not consider 18 or 20 the first step into adulthood, at least not anymore.
So, the question is: What does being an adult mean, exactly? Does it only mean living separately from your parents? Does it mean financial independence or being married or starting a family? At 20 years old, are we mature enough to fully take responsibility for our own actions? Science says no. The brain does not fully finish growing and developing until the mid-20s to around age 30.
Of course, people shouldn’t wait for their brain to stop developing to make critical decisions about their education and future. However, it does mean that people from ages 18 to 24 could be grouped in a separate category called “young adulthood” to accurately describe their youth and the changes they are still going through. Although 20 years old is certainly old enough to take up responsibility for one’s schooling, a job and other activities, it may not be the right time for major commitments like buying a home, marriage or children.
In the end, however, one thing is for sure: No matter how old their offspring become, most parents still tend to think of them as kids — and at age 20, they may very well be.