Life is full of phases. There's the milk-only phase, the macaroni and cheese phase, and on and on through childhood. But an increasing number of people are taking longer to transition to adulthood.
"In prior generations, you get married and you start a career and you do that immediately. What young people today are seeing is that approach has led to divorces, to people unhappy with their careers," said Brigham Young University professor Larry Nelson, who recently completed research on the transition from childhood to adulthood.
Nelson, who is working with colleagues Jason Carroll and Laura Walker, said young people's attitudes have changed to reflect a generation wanting to be completely ready before starting a family or a serious career.
"The majority want to get married they just want to do it right the first time, the same thing with their careers," Nelson said.
Ben St. Clair, a junior at BYU, said he feels stuck between the two phases.
"In some ways I do feel like an adult, but in other ways I think that the transition between teenage years and adulthood sometimes isn't as obvious as perhaps I would have thought," he said.
For the BYU study, researchers asked parents if they thought their young adult child was an adult. Most of the parents said no or not all the way, and the students agreed they aren't quite there. However, parents and children in the study had different views on what makes a person an adult.
"It's not events. We used to think you go through a certain right of passage," Nelson said. "It's characteristics and abilities that you need."
Parents rate complying with societal norms and not getting in trouble high on the list of adult attributes. Those items are lower on the list for young people, who would rather use their young adulthood to have the time of their lives.
"They also see this time period as a chance to have fun and explore, kind of focus on themselves a little bit," Nelson said.
Nelson said there are two types of people in this life transition stage: those who are flourishing with the time and those who are floundering in destructive behavior. Those who flourish use the time between the teenage years and adulthood as a stepping stone to create better lives for themselves by figuring out what they want from life and pursuing it. The flounderers are using their newfound freedom to try new things that aren't always good, including drugs.
"We used to think all of those things happen in adolescence," Nelson said. "Those behaviors reach their peak during this time period."
National research also supports the transition trend. According to the Network on Transitions to Adulthood, which is funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, young adults are moving away from home later, extending their education, marrying older and changing jobs more often. Barbara Ray, communications director for the network, said most of those things used to be accomplished by the time a person reached 25, but now the transition to adulthood is stretching into the 30s.
Nelson pointed out that the average age of first marriages is increasing, that more students are going to graduate school in subjects different from their undergraduate work, and that it is harder to achieve financial independence than it was for the rising generation's parents.
Young adults who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns BYU, have a reputation for marrying earlier and embarking on adult responsibilities like having children at a younger age than the national average.
Other research conducted by Nelson found that students at BYU tend to acquire adult-like attributes earlier than their peers, even their religious peers. He attributes that to the roles placed on young adults by the church. LDS youth are given more structure than some of their peers, and that allows them to develop attributes like selflessness and avoidance of negative behaviors.
Ray and Nelson say that the transition trend isn't the result of children who just won't grow up, but it is new. Ray said it has emerged in the last decade, and the consequences aren't yet known.
"The change is fairly recent, so we don't quite know if it's a good thing or a bad thing," Ray said.
• Brittani Lusk can be reached at 344-2549 or at email@example.com.