The Biggest Changes Generation Z Brings to the Adult World

Susan Sawyer, M.D. of the Murdoch Children’s Institute confirmed something I have been saying for years now: being an adolescent today is very different than it was even 20 years ago. Certainly, it’s different than when I was a teen.

The adolescent phase of human development now lasts much longer than it once did. In fact, adolescence, as a stage of life, is expanding on both ends of the spectrum. Kids are entering adolescence in elementary school—being exposed to information on teen websites, social media, getting something tattooed or pierced and entering puberty earlier. At the same time, young people are staying in adolescence well into their twenties. They are not working jobs or leaving Mom and Dad until later.

According to MedPage Today writer, Kristina Fiore, adolescence begins at age 10 today (the onset of puberty) and extends until 24 years old. Some educators would argue it continues to age 26 or 28, due to the delay of emotional maturation. What was once a doorway from childhood to adulthood has now become an elongated portion of life in today’s young people. It’s a 15-year window of time.

How Is This Affecting Generation Z?

So, how is this reality impacting students today? The nationwide data may surprise you. They’re avoiding certain adult temptations, but also some adult responsibilities that once were “rites of passage” for young adults. It’s both good news and bad news. Take a look.

Avoiding Adult Temptations

Typically, teenage students begin to experiment with adult behaviors such as consuming alcohol, engaging in sex and smoking. For example, according to a study among teens between 2010-2016, just 29 percent of 8th graders drank alcohol, down from 56 percent in the 1990s. And 67 percent of 12th graders drank, down from 93 percent forty years ago. Engaging in sex dropped slightly from 68 percent in the 90s to 62 percent now. Smoking has seen a significant drop among high school students too. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, just 8 percent of high schoolers smoked cigarettes last year. This number is a record low. The changes are seen in all economic groups and from all parts of the country.

This is all good news.

Avoiding Adult Responsibilities

While the above numbers are encouraging, young adults today are also avoiding many of the responsibilities that accompany adulthood. For instance, the age in which teens begin to drive, the age they begin working a job and the age they begin living on their own are all rising. About half of 12th graders worked for pay, down from 76 percent twenty-five years ago. When I was a teen, I remember driver’s licenses being a rite of passage for 16-year olds. Today, not so much. Just 73 percent of 12th graders even have their license today. Kids are fine with Mom driving them around, or finding a ride from Uber. In short, these teens are less likely to drive, work for pay, or live on their own until later.

Even dating without their parents has gone down. When I was a teen in 1976, 86 percent of 12th grade high school students dated. It was another rite of passage. Today, it’s dropped to 63 percent. Instead, teens will actually go out on a date with their parents. There’s obviously nothing wrong with this; I relish strong parent/teen relationships. The downside may just be, however, that these same young adults are not even able to live independently, moving out of the house much later than they did twenty-five years ago. According to author Dr. Jean Twenge, “The whole developmental pathway has slowed way down. Today’s 18-year old is acting more like a 15-year old and today’s young adult in their 20s is acting more like a teen.”

This is not so good news.

Changing Adult Norms

As this young Millennial and Generation Z population enters the adult population, they are already introducing other changes, too. Unlike preceding generations, they look to do life differently than the past three generations have. For better or worse:

  • Their community is on-line, not in person. While their grandparents likely belonged to a civic club and church, they are connecting virtually on a screen.
  • Their spirituality is individual, not corporate. They still claim to be spiritual but they are less likely to participate in organized religious meetings.
  • Their identification as a male or female is shifting. Gender is more fluid and options for Generation Z are expanding beyond the binary choices of the past.

Because change in inevitable, we must acknowledge the task ahead of us. Let’s work to prepare them to lead the way into a world unlike what we’ve known before. For more ideas on how to do this, check out our new release: Marching Off the Map: Inspire Students to Navigate a Brand New World.

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The Biggest Changes Generation Z Brings to the Adult World