Adulthood: The time you get serious about the rest of your life


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Content type
Family Matters article

December 1991


Both age and the status markers by which we judged adulthood in the past are no longer clear cut indicators. Today's 23 year old may have a partner but no job, a child but no partner, be a student and married, have a job but be living with parents; he or she may have no job, no partner, no child and be living with parents, but still feel adult. In 1990, the Australian Institute of Family Studies Becoming Adult Study asked 138 23-year-olds what adulthood meant to them. Findings from the study showed that adulthood meant responsibility, independence and, to a lesser extent, a stage of psychological development involving growth, learning and consolidation of self.

'Adulthood? I'd have to say I'm in it aren't I? Probably, it's the time you get serious about the rest of your life.'

This is how Vince sees adulthood. He is 23, financially independent, has a relationship of three years' standing with a young woman, is self-assured and in his own and other people's estimation, is clearly an adult.

However, both age and the status markers by which we judged adulthood in the past are no longer clear-cut indicators.

Adulthood is socially defined, with expectations about appropriate behaviours and facing up to responsibilities. In the past, adults were expected to have made some important transitions such as from school to the workforce, from living in their parent's home to living in a household of their own, from financial dependence to financial independence.

Now, however, it is not nearly so straightforward. A 23- year-old may have a partner but no job, a child but no partner, be a student and living with parents, be a student and married, have a job but be living with parents; they may have no job, no partner, no child and be living with parents, but still feel adult.

Adulthood is also a stage of psychological and personal development by which time it is assumed that individuals have established their identity and are well on the way to being independent, responsible, self-disciplined and purposeful. If this is adulthood, some would say that most of us spend our lives 'becoming adult' and perhaps never reach that state. Others argue that we always carry something of the child within us and that the healthiest balance is to recognise and accept both elements, the adult and the child, each of which is appropriate at particular times.

In some societies, reaching adulthood is clearly marked by ritual and ceremony at a certain age or on assuming a particular status. In post-industrial societies, attaining adult status tends to be gradual, complex and sometimes ill- defined. Different adult rights and responsibilities are assumed at different ages. Responsibilities may be assumed gradually and unevenly or rapidly and all of a sudden, either through choice or because of some unexpected event.

In 1990, the Institute asked 138 23-year-olds what adulthood meant to them. Did they see being adult in the ways described above, or did they use different indicators? The question was included in the Institute's Becoming Adult Study, which had two main aims. The first was to explore and describe how a group of young adults in their early twenties had made adult lives for themselves; the second was to identify and explore different pathways to adulthood and different patterns of independence and responsibility.

Overall, findings from the study showed that, for this group of 23- year-olds, adulthood meant responsibility, independence and, to a lesser extent, a stage of psychological development involving growth, learning and consolidation of self.


The theme of responsibility predominated responsibility for determining one's own life and future, financial and social responsibility, and responsibility for others.

Responsibility for self

A strong sense of increased personal responsibility was generally seen as a positive aspect of becoming an adult. The following comment summed up the prevailing sentiment:

'Adulthood means being responsible for where you are going, what you are going to do with the rest of your life, and being responsible enough to make the right decisions or the wrong ones, whichever it be.'

Several 23-year-olds specifically mentioned the shift from parental to personal responsibility, for example:

'Adulthood is being in control of what you're doing because you haven't got a mum and dad controlling it anymore.'

'Before, other people's decisions were the ones that affected you. Now, it's a challenge to be in charge of your life and direction.'

Some were a bit anxious about this type of responsibility. Dean, a student and living in a de facto relationship, said:

'It means taking full responsibility for your actions basically and the whole point about adulthood is trying to come to terms with this particular fact. That's what the panic comes from!'

Financial responsibility

The positive side of financial responsibility was the sense of control over one's life but the pressures were frequently mentioned: 'having to watch money'; 'bills, bills, pressure and work'; 'more responsibilities, looking after the financial and banking side of it, knowing you've got to save instead of spend'; 'having to watch money'.

Even when parents were clearly there as a backstop, there was an acknowledgement of personal financial responsibility in adulthood. Lawrence, who lived with his parents, realised that he had his family as a support but felt that as an adult it was up to him to become financially secure and to make a go of his career.

Responsibility for others

Looking out for others, feeling obliged to consider others, and accountability for others were also part of adulthood. In several cases, comments were related to a partner or children, but some expressed a more general responsibility for other people.

Deborah had children and for her, adulthood meant 'responsibility for other people, and with that a certain lack of freedom'. Kate said:

'You've got to start looking at your future. I've already got the responsibility of having a partner, so you've got to change your direction and your pattern.'

Simon was soon to be married, but his comment reflected an attitude developed from growing up in a large, single- parent family and being involved in the scouting movement:

'You can't just be responsible for yourself; you have to look after other people at the same time, but not be there as a babysitter. If someone's doing something wrong or having a bit of trouble, you just give them a word.'

Social responsibility

Some young adults thought adulthood brought wider social responsibilities. Celia said adulthood meant 'trying to do the right things by yourself and others around you; trying to do the right thing by the community, by the environment, being a ''greenie'' really. And having the ability to do that for future generations, not just thinking of yourself'.

Shane thought it meant 'taking responsibility for the things around you, trying to change the things that you don't like, just putting your opinion in on what's wrong and what's right with the world'. He said:

'I feel that it's a time of your life (when) if you feel strongly about something, then it's time for you to act and have your say. Adolescence is a time when you formulate all your ideas, formulate yourself and know what you're about. And then adulthood is a time that you take responsibility to do something about the things you feel strongly about.'

Doing something about social issues and problems begins with an awareness of the world beyond one's immediate sphere. For Kerry, being adult meant facing the negative aspects of human behaviour:

'Being adult means not being so naive about the world and people in general.'

Independence and Freedom

Almost as frequently mentioned as responsibility was the sense of independence, personal autonomy and freedom to make one's own decisions. Comments included: 'not being restrained by rules and regulations from school and parents'; 'being able to do what you want when you want without having to ask'; 'not having to ask Mum and Dad'; and 'it means making my own choices, my own decisions'. While this was generally regarded as a very positive aspect of growing up, many young adults talked about ambivalent feelings and the realisation that there was also a negative side to freedom and independence. Tamara thought being an adult was 'very unstable':

'When you're a child and you're still going to school, it's safe. You've always got the backing and support of your parents, so whatever happens it always goes back on your parents. If you stuff up, it's your parents' fault. But when you're in adulthood, you're in reality. If you stuff up, it's your fault, and you have to live with it.'

Several young adults reflected on the differences between adolescence and young adulthood and a tendency for views to change. Lucy said:

'I can remember being 15 or 16, and thinking: ''I can't wait to be 18 or 19 and move out of home and have my own lifestyle.'' But I don't think that I was aware of how many responsibilities you have. But I do like the freedom of it too, like I'm in charge of my own self.'

Dean recalled his schooldays:

'It's funny when you're young, you think that you look forward to adulthood. You don't really appreciate the pressures. Now, quite often, I think back on it. You come back from school, put down your bag, watch TV or read a book or just relax.

'Now, I mean, God knows where the next rent is going to come from and we have all these other sort of worries. The sort of worries you might have in childhood take a totally different order of magnitude when you move into adulthood.'

Growing, Learning, Consolidating

Psychological development was not mentioned as frequently as responsibility and independence. Adulthood was variously talked about as a time of increased maturity, growth, learning and personal consolidation. Some comments were:

'Being wise and knowing your limitations.'

'Finding your place in this world, finding where you belong.'

'Having a sense of happiness, having an awareness of who you are, in every situation, but also being able to just let go of that awareness and just enjoy things. Which, I mean, you can't do all the time, but you persevere at it. Also, not relying on other people to do your dirty work.'

Lisa thought constant challenges were part of becoming an adult:

'You learn something new each day and I think yeah, maybe I can do something like that next time. You're forever being tested in your life, so as you mature more, you're being tested more. Tests at school are nowhere near what I've gone through to get to 23 years of age. Imagine what I'm going to go through to get to 30. All my little experiences are in the back of my mind and it's sort of clicking over. I suppose you grow wiser.'

Social Markers of Adulthood

For some young adults, adulthood included the recognised social transitions of employment, leaving home, becoming committed to a relationship and establishing a family of one's own. Such social markers were mentioned both by young adults who had made these transitions and those who had not. Janice was married and said:

'I'm still part of a family, but we've become our own family. Now we do our own thing. That's adulthood for me. And later on to have children.'

George wasn't partnered but for him, adulthood meant 'marriage, being a parent, kids, things like that'. Because Erica was not in a relationship, she felt that she was not an adult in all ways:

'I consider myself an adult in some ways but not in others as I don't have a relationship, and I'm free to really do what I want.'

When asked whether having a relationship made her more of an adult, she replied:

'It does, it's sort of more of a permanent thing, that you know you might settle down one day; you might take on a lot more responsibilities.'

Cameron summed up the importance of the major transitions this way:

'Adulthood is what I'm doing now working, living, earning a living, living with someone, supporting each other.'

Bill and Joanne saw establishing a home and having children as part of being an adult but something that they weren't ready for yet:

'It means responsibilities which I haven't got any of at the moment. A house and you get kids and all that sort of thing. You sort of tie yourself down and I don't like being tied down.' (Bill)

'More commitments; you've got to work harder as you get older because you're eventually going to have to buy a house, and all that sort of stuff. I just take it as it comes really, I don't really think about it.' (Joanne)

The right to vote was mentioned by only one respondent and although getting a car and a driver's licence were often mentioned as important events since the age of 16 and significant in the development of independence, they were not mentioned in the context of adulthood.

Living at Home and Being Adult

There were no consistent differences between those who lived with parents and those who did not when respondents defined adulthood. However, some thought that living with parents did mean restricted independence and somewhat less responsibility. Sandy said:

'Even though I'm 23, I suppose a lot of people my age are out of home and I still live at my parents' home. I probably don't feel I have as much independence as them.'

James remarked that adulthood was being more mature, 'but I'm still living with parents and so there's not exactly that many more responsibilities I suppose'. Barbara said:

'I suppose living at home I don't have that total independence that to be an adult would bring. I could say sometimes my parents treat me as an adult when they talk about some things ... But I feel if I was truly adult, I wouldn't be at home.'

Loss of Spontaneity and Good Times 

A small minority viewed adulthood in a negative light because it meant growing older. Adults were also regarded as people who no longer had the capacity to be spontaneous and carefree. Comments included:

'If I admitted to being an adult then I would have to also say that I'd reached a point of development where I'm going to be static for the rest of my life, and I'm not willing to do that yet.'

Louis, a confident young man who is successfully running his own small business, said:

'Generally I'm trying to stay young as long as I can. The day I grow old and have to be responsible is the day I think I'll give it away. I'll try to hang on to my youth as long as possible ... Adulthood is scary in a sense. Everyone's scared of responsibility and if they say they're not, they're blind to themselves.'

Christine said:

'I would hate to ever consider myself a real adult, or what is supposed to be an adult. If all the fun and some of my childish side went out of me, I think I'd be a very boring person. It means facing up to responsibilities. You're talking to someone now who hasn't had to face up to any of these big decisions.'

However, such a view did not mean that responsibilities were avoided. The same young woman said 'adulthood means taking control over your own destiny which I believe I've done for quite a while, up to a certain degree, of course'.

And there was Julie, who remarked that being adult means being 'straightlaced and serious and that's not me'; she owned a small business and was married with two children in her care.

Uncertainty About Adulthood

A small number of young adults (less than 10 per cent of the group) said they were unsure what it meant to be an adult, or they didn't really feel like an adult yet, or they were reluctant to take on some aspects of adulthood. This group included some who carried many of the responsibilities normally associated with being adult and others who did not.

Meredith left school and home at 16 and was thrust into early independence because she did not get on well with either of her (separated) parents. When interviewed, she was married, employed full-time and regarded herself as a confident, competent person. However, she said, regarding adulthood:

'I don't know (what it means). I'm not there yet, I wouldn't have a clue. I don't think there's any such thing as a 'grown-up' or an adult. I think people just get older. I don't think you really change that much; you don't just wake up one day and think: ''It's happened, I'm an adult.'' (But) I don't know anybody in any age group who I would say would be more of an adult than I am.'

A small number of young adults appeared to be uncertain about their adulthood or their acceptance of responsibility by reason of physical illness or emotional problems. Leon had sought help for his emotional problems over a period of years and was having difficulty coping with some aspects of his life. He said:

'Logically, yes, I am an adult but I don't really think of myself as one. I don't have the traits of the person that I saw as an adult when I was 16, the traits that an adult should have. I'm not ready to accept the responsibilities of being an adult yet.'

Alison, who had had several bouts of severe depression since her teenage years, said:

'I don't feel like I'm an adult yet, not truly. Other people obviously see me as an adult but I don't feel that I am. There must be something I've missed. I feel like I'm about 19.'


Social and psychological aspects of adulthood emerged in the responses of these young adults. Social expectations about appropriate adult behaviour were recognised (and resisted or only reluctantly accepted by some). Changes in status, such as moving out of the parental home, partnering, and having a child, were seen as important, but although some thought that not having made these transitions made one less of an adult, they did not emerge as crucial to the meaning of adulthood.

In defining adulthood, only a minority of the 23-year-olds volunteered aspects of psychological development, such as 'maturity', meeting challenges, and finding one's place in the world. This does not necessarily mean they are not recognised but that some young adults find it easier than others to identify and talk about these aspects of adulthood.

For the 23-year-olds in the study, the most obvious aspects of being an adult were responsibility, independence and freedom. While adulthood was generally viewed in a positive light, financial responsibility was often seen as a pressure. Respondents acknowledged both the 'up' and the 'down' side of taking control of their lives and some were reluctant to let go of the best parts of childhood and adolescence.