Why Do Today’s Young Americans Seem to be Trapped in Neverland?

gen z arrested development
Andi Graf, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Later this month, I will turn 40, and I’m not the least bit upset about it. I’ve done all the things one should do and more: worked minimum wage jobs as a teenager, served my country in uniform, paid my bills and taxes, traveled the world, put myself through college, got married…then divorced, got married again, and had a family.

I’ve just been checking those life experience boxes like a master of to-do lists. Many of my experiences are typical rites of passage, and some are unique to the path I chose as an adult – but they all have something in common; they all relate to growing up.

Unfortunately, study after study over the last few years has shown that young Americans are less likely to do the typical actions of adulthood, preferring instead to stay in the comfort of adolescence, living much less exciting lives a la Peter Pan.

So let’s dive deeper and see if we can Tinkerbell these young Lost Boys and Girls into highly functioning adults.

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Late Adulthood

A graph has been making its rounds from a 2016 study that showed that the average American 12th grader is significantly more risk-averse than their 1976 counterparts. Some might say that doesn’t sound too bad; perhaps these 17 and 18-year-olds are partaking less in alcohol, sexual activity, and drugs.

Risk aversion can be an excellent quality. However, the areas measured in this study included a significant decrease in 12th graders who had done the following:

  • Gotten a driver’s license
  • Gone on dates
  • Worked for pay

As a teenager, I didn’t have an option to forego my driver’s license, and I didn’t even get to have my own car once I got my license. It was also a requirement to have a license to join the military back in my day.

And when it comes to dating, while I was not a head turner, I managed to go on the occasional movie date and homecoming dance where my mom would make my bangs reach new physics-defying heights and cover me in glitter from head to toe (don’t judge it was the late 90s).

And when the time came that I wanted to buy my own clothes, I did so with my own money I had earned working minimum wage jobs after school and in the summer.

So why the decline? The answer is obvious.

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It’s Our Fault

It’s natural for each generation to want their children to have a better life than they had; after all, we love our children and want them to be happy. But, unfortunately, we’ve managed to spoil them into permanent infancy.

Let’s talk about getting a job. In 1979 60% of American teenagers were employed; in 2021, that number had dropped to 30.5%. 

I’ve known countless parents who said they wouldn’t allow their kids to have jobs because they wanted them to “enjoy their teenage years” and “focus on high school.” Sounds great, in theory. However, it’s a terrible idea.

Having a job as a teenager teaches you valuable life skills like answering a telephone, providing information to customers, counting back change, and perhaps most importantly, finding value in time and money and dignity in work. So now let’s talk about that driver’s license.

In my day, you couldn’t wait to get your license because it meant freedom; you could escape the chains of your parental units and go somewhere other than your house. However, in my day, there wasn’t the addictive escape of the screen.

Pew Research found that in 2020 80% of American parents admitted their children between the ages of 5 and 11 have a tablet or screen device. A staggering 48% of parents with kids under 5 said the same. 

This brings me to what might be the biggest threat to our country, the downfall of the American community.

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A Simulated Reality

Americans spend about 7 hours a day browsing the internet in some capacity. Now, I spend a lot of time in front of a screen due to my job as your friendly spicy writer, but even I don’t spend that much time just browsing the internet. 

Thanks to the advent of the internet and social media, everyone, and I mean everyone, is addicted to their phones. It doesn’t matter the age group either; plenty of you older folks are glued to your Facebook feed. 

But it certainly doesn’t help the younger generation of Americans who have been parented and taught via tablet. As a result, Americans are going through what’s been coined a “social recession,” with 12% saying they have no close friends, up from 2% in 2003

It’s no wonder we have a mental health epidemic in this country. Famed psychologist Carl Jung once said:

“Personal meaning comes when people feel they are living the symbolic life, that they are actors in the divine drama.”

Suppose your life consists of watching the simulated lives of others online and attempting to simulate and project the same fantasy. In that case, you aren’t living, which is what our youth suffer from today.

Bring Back Bridge Night

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine. He made a great point about how it’s too easy to bring up problems and never any solutions. So while my day job requires me to point out problems, I decided to find a solution. The way to help our young teenagers and adults grow up is simple: bring back communities.

I’m not talking about communities in a generic architectural construct; I mean actual communities built on connecting to one another.

As economist Bryce Ward points out, due to technology:

“We’re exercising more alone…we’re shopping more alone…time in rotary clubs and bowling leagues and all that stuff…had all fallen.”

We don’t hang out anymore, regardless of age and demographic, which has caused us all to be quite sad and lonely. A Gallup Poll found that in 1999 70% of Americans belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque. Come 2020, that number plummeted to 47%.

It’s time to relearn how to look each other in the eye, enjoy a meal without your phone, engage with other people over shared interests like faith, volunteering, or hell, invite your neighbors over to learn how to pay Bridge together. And it’s time to do the hard thing and actually parent.

Parenting is hard; it’s supposed to be, but if we let screens do it for us, our kids will be doomed to be Lost Boys and Girls forever. Just say “no” to tablets and yes to board games – surprisingly, our three-year-old son is quite adept at Sorry!

And finally, when your kid is of legal age, drive them around to fill out job applications and teach them how to drive. Someday we all need to grow up, and it’s not all that bad – I promise.

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USAF Retired, Bronze Star recipient, outspoken veteran advocate. Hot mess mom to two monsters and wife to equal parts... More about Kathleen J. Anderson

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