Not drinking or driving, teens increasingly put off traditional markers of adulthood

Sep 20, 2017, 05:00 PM

When 17-year-old Quattro Musser hangs out with friends, they don’t drink beer or cruise around in cars with their dates. Rather, they stick to G-rated activities such as rock-climbing or talking about books.

They are in good company, according to a new study showing that teenagers are increasingly delaying activities that had long been seen as rites of passage into adulthood. The study, published Tuesday in the journal Child Development, found that the percentage of adolescents in the United States who have a driver’s license, who have tried alcohol, who date and who work for pay has plummeted since 1976, with the most precipitous decreases in the past decade.

The declines appeared across racial, geographic and socioeconomic lines and in rural, urban and suburban areas.

To be sure, more than half of teens still engage in these activities, but the majorities have slimmed considerably. Between 1976 and 1979, 86 percent of high school seniors had gone on a date; between 2010 and 2015, only 63 percent had, the study found. During the same period, the portion that had ever earned money from working plunged from 76 percent to 55 percent. And the portion that had tried alcohol plummeted from 93 percent between 1976 and 1979 to 67 percent between 2010 and 2016.

“People say, ‘Oh, it’s because teenagers are more responsible, or more lazy, or more boring,’ but they’re missing the larger trend,” said Jean Twenge, lead author of the study, which drew on seven large time-lag surveys of Americans. Rather, she said, youths may be less interested in activities such as dating, driving or getting jobs because in today’s society, they no longer need to be.

According to an evolutionary-psychology theory that a person’s “life strategy” slows down or speeds up depending on the person’s surroundings, exposure to a “harsh and unpredictable” environment leads to faster development, while a more resource-rich and secure environment has the opposite effect, the study said.

In the first scenario, “you’d have a lot of kids and be in survival mode, start having kids young, expect your kids will have kids young, and expect that there will be more diseases and fewer resources,” said Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University who is the author of “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.”

A century ago, when life expectancy was lower and college education less prevalent, “the goal back then was survival, not violin lessons by 5,” Twenge said.

In that model, a teenage boy might be thinking more seriously about marriage, and driving a car and working for pay would be important for “establishing mate value based on procurement of resources,” the study said.

But the United States is shifting more toward the slower model, and the change is apparent across the socioeconomic spectrum, Twenge said. “Even in families whose parents didn’t have a college education . . . families are smaller, and the idea that children need to be carefully nurtured has really sunk in.”

The postponement of “adult activities” could not be attributed to more homework or extracurricular activities, the study said, noting that teens today spend fewer hours on homework than they did in the 1990s and the same amount of time on extracurriculars (with the exception of community service, which has risen slightly.) Nor could the use of smartphones and the Internet be entirely the cause, the report said, since the decline began before they were widely available.

Musser, who lives in Portland, Ore., has had summer jobs, but he has never drunk alcohol and said he is not curious to try. To him, the idea that earlier generations of teens centered evening activities around procuring and drinking alcohol sounded mystifying.

“I haven’t heard of anyone who goes out and specifically drinks with their friends,” he said. “It’s not something you set out to do, like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m go...