Today’s University Students Are Anxious About Growing Up

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Blame the tough job market, or perhaps parents’ pamperings.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Glen Cooper/Getty Images)

The Peter Pan Syndrome was one of the best-selling books of the early 1980s. In it, psychologist Dan Kiley argued that teenage boys were increasingly reluctant to grow up and accept adult responsibilities.

Any hope that this might be a short-lived phenomenon is refuted by newresearch. It finds that, compared to previous generations, today’s university students — both male and female — consider maturity a minefield they are in no hurry to start navigating.

“Today’s emerging adults seem reluctant to take on life’s next chapter,” concludes a research team led by Miami University psychologist April Smith. “Undergraduates today experience more fear related to facing the demands of adult life than undergraduates in the past.”

In the International Journal of Behavioral Development, Smith and her colleagues describe two studies that trace the changing attitudes of undergraduates. The first featured nearly 3,300 male and female students at an elite private university who were assessed in 1982, 1992, 2002, and 2012. The second featured 673 women enrolled at a large public university who were assessed in 2001, 2003, 2009, and 2012.

Using a one-to-six (“never” to “always”) scale, participants in both studies responded to four assertions designed to measure one’s fear of maturity, including “I wish that I could return to the security of childhood,” and “The happiest time in life is when you were a child.”

The notion of not growing up is undeniably enticing, but emotionally stifling.

In the first study, “maturity fears increased significantly among both undergraduate men and women during the time frame of 1982–2012,” the researchers report. The second study duplicated these results, finding female students in 2012 expressed significantly more fearful attitudes than those in 2001.

What’s behind this anxiety? Smith and her colleagues cite a number of possibilities, including “challenging economic times, social pressures to remain youthful, and/or internal fears of assuming increased responsibility.” They note that students’ fear of the future isn’t necessarily unwarranted, “given the increasing difficulty of launching one’s career.”

In addition, “parents appear to be more controlling and protective of their children” than in the past, the researchers add. “These changes in parenting may leave children feeling less prepared to take the risks that are required of the transition from childhood to adulthood, and in turn, increase fears of doing so.”

Whatever its origins, “an increasing fear of maturity is worrying,” Smith and her colleagues note, “not only because this process is inevitable and natural,” but also because “it may adversely affect the development of one’s own identity, capacity for intimate relationships, and/or behavioral and financial independence.”

As J.M. Barrie reminded us a century ago, the notion of not growing up is undeniably enticing, but emotionally stifling. Perhaps colleges and universities should develop programs to help students transition into the realm of real-world responsibilities.