Defining Adulthood

Are College Students Ready for the Real World?


Published: January 31, 2008

College students are old enough to vote, fight in Iraq and buy tobacco; yet, most do not define themselves as adults.  In a study conducted by Brigham Young University, 392 students from four regionally and financially diverse schools, and their parents, were questioned.  Nineteen percent of the fathers considered their children adults, while 16 percent of the moms felt their 18 to 25 year olds had reached adulthood.  The same 16 percent of college students called themselves adults.

The study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, also determined that there are vast differences between parent and student definitions of adulthood.  Most students determined adults to be financially stable, with their own homes and successful careers, while parents focused more on how responsible a person is in their decision making. Larry Nelson, the lead author of the study and an associate professor at Brigham Young’s School of Family Life, stated that the different definitions of adulthood overlapped with a common aspect.  Both generations consider someone an adult if they are self-sufficient.

Fordham College at Lincoln Center students agreed with the definition of adulthood found by the study.

Jess Bender, FCLC ’11, said,  “When I’m able to pay off my $80,000 worth of student loans, move out of the suburban home I’ve known for my whole life into a semi-cramped studio apartment that needs major renovations, then I’ll consider myself an adult.”

Believing adulthood is based on the responsibility it takes to be self-reliant, Juliet Ben-Ami, FCLC ’11, said, “The better someone can take on [her] responsibilities in such a way that [she] leads a healthy, happy, productive life, the more adult [she is].”

Danny Larkin, FCLC ’07, graduated last year and feels well on his way to adulthood.  “As an adult, you need to have priorities.  You can make stupid decisions in college and get a bad mark, but it doesn’t really affect you in the long run,” Larkin said.  “March of my senior year is when it hit me—I had to find an apartment and a job.  I was setting up the next chapter in my life.”

Larkin said that another sign of growing up is the way a person’s relationships change. “In college, I was friends with some people because we both smoked and didn’t want to smoke alone.  Now, friendships are more intimate and committed, since we live all over the city.  It’s not about convenience anymore,” Larkin said.

The real experts—parents—held a different perspective. Ben-Ami’s father, Doron Ben-Ami, said, “There is no ‘adulthood’ to reach…As a general declaration, I say that I am an adult. But I have nothing with which to prove that. And neither does anyone else.”

Despite having a job and paying all of his own bills, Larkin does not believe that he is an adult in the eyes of his parents. “Parents will never see us as adults—we are just older, bigger versions of the children they raised.”

As Mr. Ben-Ami said, “‘Adult’” is like ‘East.’ It’s a direction to travel, and there’s no defined destination.”