However, none of these researchers and writers has been able to tie everything together. Not drinking or having sex might be considered “virtuous,” but not driving or working is unrelated to virtue — and might actually be seen as less responsible. A lower teen pregnancy rate isn’t “boring” or “lazy”; it’s fantastic.
A different culture, a slower path
Working, driving, drinking alcohol, having sex and dating have one thing in common: They are all activities adults do. This generation of teens, then, is delaying the responsibilities and pleasures of adulthood.
Adolescence — once the beginning of adulthood — now seems to be an extension of childhood. It’s not that teens are more virtuous or lazier. They could simply be taking longer to grow up.
A “fast-life strategy,” on the other hand, was the more common parenting approach in the mid-20th century, when fewer labor-saving devices were available and the average woman had four children. As a result, kids needed to fend for themselves sooner. When my uncle told me he went skinny-dipping with his friends when he was eight, I wondered why his parents gave him permission.
Then I remembered: His parents had six other children (with one more to come), ran a farm and it was 1947. The parents needed to focus on day-to-day survival, not making sure their kids had violin lessons by age five.
Is growing up slowly good or bad?
But like any adaptation, the slow life strategy has trade-offs. It’s definitely a good thing that fewer teens are having sex and drinking alcohol. But what about when they go to college and suddenly enter an environment where sex and alcohol are rampant? For example, although fewer 18-year-olds now binge-drink, 21- to 22-year-olds still binge-drink at roughly the same rate as they have since the 1980s.
The same might be true of teens who don’t work, drive or go out much in high school. Yes, they’re probably less likely to get into an accident, but they may also arrive at college or the workplace less prepared to make decisions on their own.
Although I found in my analyses that iGen evinces a stronger work ethic than millennials, they’ll probably also require more guidance as they transition into adulthood.
Even with the downsides in mind, it’s likely beneficial that teens are spending more time developing socially and emotionally before they date, have sex, drink alcohol and work for pay.
The key is to make sure that teens eventually get the opportunity to develop the skills they will need as adults: independence, along with social and decision-making skills.
For parents, this might mean making a concerted effort to push your teenagers out of the house more. Otherwise, they might just want to live with you forever.
Jean Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University.