Young people have long faced similar challenges on their way to adulthood.
Think the road to adulthood was straighter and narrower back in the day? For some, perhaps, but as historian Steven Mintz explains in The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood
, many of our assumptions about how past generations came of age are ill-informed.
Myth: College students are unprecedented troublemakers.
Today’s students may be more dedicated partiers than their forefathers were, but they don’t participate in as many riots. Between 1800 and 1830, six broke out at Princeton alone. Harvard expelled more than half the class of 1823. Administrators widely bemoaned the breakdown of order and tradition—one president railed that students were “averse to reading or thinking.” The unrest waned as institutions broadened curricula, eased restrictions on students’ daily routines, and gave students more space to build their own organizations.
Myth: “Boomerang kids” are more home-bound than past generations.
Reports of twenty somethings living with their parents today often imply that these young people are unworthy of the term adult. As Mintz writes, “Condemnation of the younger generation is among this country’s oldest traditions.” In the 1800s and early 1900s, he points out, living with parents (and contributing to the family coffer) was common. Boom times after World War II helped launch a generation well employed at younger ages, but the increasing costs of securing a career and a home have pushed many young adults back into their parents’ orbit.
Myth: The transition to marriage and career was traditionally quicker and easier.
Every era brings its share of change, forcing young people to carve a new path. It was not always the case, as some assume, that premodern adults simply took after their parents: As farmland became scarcer in colonial America, and later, when apprenticeships declined in the early 1800s, many had to find new ways of making money. Likewise, the rise in the average age of marriage since the 1970s seems less stark in light of past dips and rises. In the first part of the 20th century and earlier, this age hovered around the mid-twenties.