Is It Normal If I Don’t Feel Ready to Be an Adult at 21?Reading Time: 7 minutes
Turning 21 can feel like crossing a line in the sand between adolescence and adulthood. In the United States, turning 21 not only grants young people permission to legally drink and smoke, it also marks the official transition to adulthood, and all the responsibilities and expectations that go along with that.
However, just because a person has circled the sun a certain number of times doesn’t mean that they’re suddenly gifted with new levels of wisdom and clarity. Plenty (maybe most) young people don’t feel ready to be an adult at 21. They’re often not ready to make adult decisions, take care of their own practical needs, or support themselves financially.
In 2021, when Gen Z unemployment is rampant and young adults are suffering from high levels of collective trauma and languishing, it’s natural for them to feel that they’re not prepared for adulthood.
What Does It Mean to Make the Transition to Adulthood?
Traditionally, adulthood has been defined by the achievement of a series of concrete goals: finishing one’s education, leaving home, finding work, finding a life partner, and having children. But many people choose not to pursue one or more of these goals, and that doesn’t mean they’re not ready to be an adult. These parameters for adulthood are too limited and too externally focused to truly describe what it means to become a full-fledged adult.
Researcher and psychology professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, PhD, who coined the term emerging adulthood, zeroed in on two criteria that define the internal experience of becoming an adult:
- Accepting responsibility for oneself
- Making independent decisions.
Arnett also noted a third, more tangible, criteria: financial independence. Only when these three criteria were achieved, he wrote, do young people make the transition to adulthood, and this typically happens in a person’s late 20s. Before they reach those goals, emerging adults exist in what Arnett described as an intermediate period between adolescence and adulthood (roughly ages 18 to 25). At this fluid stage, there are many options available to a young person, and their life may undergo many different changes—in areas ranging from identity and worldview to geographic location, friend group, romantic partner, and work.
Emerging adulthood is a time when young people don’t feel totally grown up, but they don’t feel like kids either. In Arnett’s research, the majority of 18- to 25-year-olds (about 60 percent) replied to the question of whether they felt like an adult with an ambiguous answer: in some ways, yes; in other ways, no. In the 26- to 35-year-old group, only about a third said “yes and no,” and that dropped to less than 10 percent for adults over 35.
Know the Facts
In 2019, only one-quarter of 21-year-olds was financially independent compared with 32% in 1980.
When Young People Don’t Feel Ready to Be an Adult at 21
The high value that Americans place on creating an independent adult life isn’t shared by all cultures. In Italy, Egypt, and the Middle East, for example, it’s accepted and even encouraged for young adults to live at home with parents and perhaps extended family members as well.
In the United States, though, social norms dictate that 20-somethings should be working or pursuing higher education, living on their own, and managing their personal finances and everyday needs, from doing their laundry to doing their taxes. When young adults aren’t able to make that leap into independence within the expected time frame, it’s sometimes called “failure to launch.” Consequently, if emerging adults don’t feel ready to leave home to finish their education or get a job, parents often blame themselves for not properly preparing their child to fly from the nest. Meanwhile, their adult children feel ashamed of their “arrested development,” and left behind by their peers.
But the pandemic has given society a new lens through which to view the transition to adulthood. With the majority of young adults living with their parents for the first time since the Great Depression, individual families, and society as a whole, are beginning to better understand the immense pressures that this generation faces. They’re grappling with a challenging job market, devastating political and environmental issues, academic pressure, and a pervading sense of loneliness and disconnection, not to mention the psychological repercussions of the past year.
In a world where the path forward is no longer clear or simple, it’s not surprising that 21-year-olds are having trouble figuring out how to get ready for adulthood.
The negative view of young adults who, immediately upon reaching legal adulthood, ‘fail’ by not ‘launching’ themselves headlong into the adult world of big decisions, career ambition and complete self-reliance does a terrible disservice to those who more cautiously move out on their own.
When Mental Health Issues Delay the Transition to Adulthood
Right now, a variety of external circumstances is impacting young adults’ ability to “emerge,” or “launch.” But in some cases, internal issues, such as mental health conditions, can slow down the developmental process. Young adults struggling with trauma, depression, or anxiety may feel they are not prepared for adulthood and its many demands. They may be afraid of making changes, or they might not have the life skills and healthy coping mechanisms to handle the stressors of getting a job and taking care of themselves. Mental health conditions can also hinder the development of executive functioning abilities, which are vital for navigating the world effectively.
Sometimes past history and family dynamics influence whether a young adult feels ready to take on greater independence. Some young people enter a negative holding pattern as teenagers, and aren’t able to break out of it as they age. For example, a young person who dropped out of college and returned home due to mental health concerns might not have had the opportunity to rebuild the confidence and self-esteem needed to make big life changes. Without the internal or external resources to support them in moving into the next stage of growth, they end up feeling stuck and paralyzed.
In addition, the dynamic between parents and children can contribute to a young person’s reluctance or inability to leave home. When children have experienced mental health issues in the past, parents may be particularly protective of and concerned about their emerging adult’s ability to live independently, and may directly or unconsciously communicate that fear and worry to their child. In cases where parents have mental health or substance abuse issues, young adult children may feel that they need to stay close by to take care of them, physically and/or emotionally. This type of codependent relationship can keep young people from taking the next step forward in their lives.
How Turning 21 Impacts Alcohol and Substance Abuse
If 21-year-olds are not ready to make adult decisions, does that mean they’re not ready to handle their new status in regard to alcohol? The research on this topic is mixed. Overall, statistics show that drinking declines among those 21 and over, according to the CDC. But that doesn’t mean that this age group is making good decisions about drinking: One study found that even though alcohol intake decreased among legal drinkers aged 21–23, driving after drinking increased.
In addition, a 2020 study found that the median age when young people begin drinking and using drugs is increasing. While that’s good news in terms of adolescent health trends, it means that emerging adults may be at higher risk of abusing alcohol or party drugs.
In fact, Arnett’s research found that emerging adulthood—not adolescence—represents the peak point for risky behavior, including binge drinking, reckless driving, and substance abuse. That’s because 20-somethings have less parental supervision than they did as teenagers, and are not yet constrained by the responsibilities that come with adulthood.
5 Ways to Move Forward When You Don’t Feel Ready to Be an Adult at 21
Young people figuring out how to get ready for adulthood can begin building skills and self-confidence even if it’s not possible for them to leave home or be financially independent yet. Here are a few tips for those who don’t feel ready to be an adult at 21.
Take on more responsibility. For young adults living at home, it can be tempting to fall back into the old patterns and allow parents to do everything for them. Create new boundaries and practice “adulting” by taking responsibility for your own practical needs, and sharing tasks like shopping, cooking, home repair, etc. Exercising these self-care “muscles” helps prepare you for greater independence.
Go toward what sparks your interest. Sometimes not knowing what you want to do in life can prevent you from moving forward. Not everyone has a passion that keeps them on track toward adulthood, and that’s okay. Notice what brings you joy and piques your curiosity, and explore how you might expand on and develop those interests.
Know you’re not alone. Many young adults don’t feel ready to be an adult at 21. Be compassionate with yourself. While there are some things you can change, there are also external circumstances at play that make it harder than ever before for young people to find jobs and become financially independent. While that isn’t a reason to give up and stop trying, recognizing this truth can help young adults stop blaming themselves for taking more time to launch.
Build community. Too often, young adults who are unemployed, not in school, and/or living at home feel embarrassed and ashamed, and that keeps them from reaching out to others—increasing their isolation and distress. It’s essential to foster community and continue developing the relationship skills that will support your growth in all areas. Start with one person you trust and feel safe with, and gradually expand your social circle. These connections will enhance your well-being and may open new doors for you when you’re ready for the next step.
Seek help for mental health issues that are holding you back. Therapy, outpatient treatment, or residential treatment can help young people overcome trauma, anxiety, depression, or co-occurring disorders, such as substance abuse, that are preventing them from achieving independence. It’s essential to address these issues now rather than hoping they’ll go away as you get older.
How to Get Ready for Adulthood: Finding the Support You Need
Do you or a loved one need help making the transition to adulthood? Newport Institute’s clinical model of care supports young adults to build autonomy and self-worth, along with the executive functioning skills and healthy coping mechanisms they need to flourish. Contact us to learn more about how we help emerging adults take the leap into the next stage of life.