What the college admissions scandal reveals about most families

If watching the college admissions scandal unfold makes you feel uneasy about young people’s adulting journeys, you’re not alone. Research studies and kitchen table conversations nationwide highlight that teenagers in the U.S. – both those applying to top-tier colleges as well as those making other educational and vocational decisions – face choices and challenges those of us over 30 didn’t encounter until our mid-20s.

Approximately 20 percent of teenagers today confess they worry “a great deal” about current and future life events. But only 8 percent of the parents of these same teenagers are aware that their child is experiencing such stress.

The devices, apps, and social media platforms used by relationship-hungry young people have become a double-edged sword – simultaneously making them feel both more connected and more alienated. Pictures and social media posts about who you’re with and what you’re doing favor the glamorous, the perfect, and the best. “Likes” are the currency that define social class while also revealing the impoverished, stressed, overextended lives young people perpetually navigate. Their parents don’t always get it but they can feel it. And often try to control it.

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That’s why for the teenagers in your family and community – 14 is the new 24.

28 is also the new 18

While young people’s adulting through adolescence has accelerated, the college admissions scandal also highlights how the inverse is also true. As symbolized by 12th graders who are not always taking their own standardized tests or filling out their college applications, for the typical twentysomething in the U.S., the process of becoming an adult has slowed down. Way down.

As our kids simultaneously feel pressured to grow up quickly and frustrated because they’re adulting too slowly, asking them to “tell me more” sparks better conversations about job stress, loneliness, and financial anxiety.

The median age for first marriage is now five years later than 50 years ago, hovering at around 26.5 for women and 28.7 for men. Similarly, the average age for women bearing their first child is 25 years, almost five years later than women in 1970.

Given the uncertainties of today’s economic climate and the increased assumption that a college degree is a nearly universal requirement for the middle-class job market, more young adults are pursuing more higher education. Two-thirds of high school graduates now enter college (in case you’re wondering, the vast majority enter through legitimate admissions paths), a higher proportion than previously in American history. Yet only 28 percent of young adults have secured a four-year college degree by age 25. When they eventually plunge into the workforce, the average young adult holds six different jobs between the ages of 18 to 26.

Partly because of young adults’ lengthening career and educational odysseys, financial independence takes longer. Forty percent of young adults in their 20s move back home with their parents at least once.

As a result of these shifts, sociologists monitoring the five key “adult” events of leaving home, finishing school, becoming financially independent, getting married, and having children report a dip in the number of 30-year-olds who have attained all five of these markers. In 1960, more than two-thirds of young adults could check all five of these boxes. In 2000, this was true of less than half of females and less than a third of males.

Just as there is a gas pedal for teenagers, there’s a brake pedal for young adults. It’s a new era of fast-slow. That’s why 28 now feels like the new 18.

Three words to help your relationships with fast-slow young people

The age-shifting numbers above give glimpses into the experience of young people who simultaneously feel their lives speeding up and slowing down. If you’ve driven a car with one foot on the gas pedal and one foot on the brake pedal, you know it’s a herky-jerky ride for everyone on board. Welcome to parenting fast-slow teenagers and twentysomethings today. The temptation is to drive for them or in some cases, cheat the driver’s test system altogether. Parents who take these shortcuts convince themselves that “it’s for the kids” when it’s (if they’re honest) about eliminating pain (for both kids and parents) and avoiding struggle and failure (for all generations).

Parents who don’t grab the steering wheel themselves but instead try to keep pace with their speeding up, slowing down kids often find those relationships to be tricky. To help me (Steve) stay connected to our three young adult children, my wife and I mounted a simple sign that reminds us of our family motto: “Tell me more.” We chose this family mantra when our oldest was in high school and our youngest was in elementary school. In the midst of a society that is relentlessly self-focused, we want to fight for conversational momentum with our adulting children.

Prior to adopting this motto, a typical conversation with our daughters would often start with my wife or me asking, “How was your cross-country meet?”

We usually received a one-word answer: “Good.”

We responded, “Cool.”

That’s as far as we got. So we added a new follow-up question: “Oh yeah? Tell me more!”

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Often they do. As our kids simultaneously feel pressured to grow up quickly and frustrated because they’re adulting too slowly, asking them to “tell me more” sparks better conversations about job stress, loneliness, and financial anxiety. Asking my children to “tell me more” also helps me fight my urge to give advice too quickly and instead offer the quiet and empathetic support they really need.

No matter how close you feel to your kids, you are likely getting an edited version of their lives. Young people in this fast-slow era often present a (very!) abridged version of their “fine” day at school, their killer Saturday night out with friends, or their rising credit card debt. Remember that there’s so much more to the story, but fear of your lectures or your increased anxiety may prevent them from sharing. Whether the college admissions scandal makes you wonder whether your child is growing up too quickly or concerned they are adulting too slowly, strategically asking your child to “tell me more” can open up conversational doors that otherwise remain locked tight.