OPINION: At what age do you really become an adult?

Back from the dead, crash-victim Gary (Peter Horton, center) reunites with his "thirtysomething" castmates Melanie Mayron (left) and Polly Draper on the "Good Morning America" set in New York. (Raise your hand if you proudly wore a "thirtysomething" T-shirt back in the late '80s.) (Donna Svennevik/ABC)
Back from the dead, crash-victim Gary (Peter Horton, center) reunites with his "thirtysomething" castmates Melanie Mayron (left) and Polly Draper on the "Good Morning America" set in New York. (Raise your hand if you proudly wore a "thirtysomething" T-shirt back in the late '80s.) (Donna Svennevik/ABC)

Credit: Donna Svennevik/ABC

Credit: Donna Svennevik/ABC

Since the 1950s, five milestones identified by sociologists have been considered the markers of adulthood: finishing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child. These milestones were supposed to be completed by the time you reached your 30s and anyone who didn’t check off those boxes could kiss their adulting card goodbye.

I graduated from college in 1992 during the recession-that-time-forgot, which meant that instead of scoring a corporate job, I ended up living at home while working as an aerobics instructor by day and data entry clerk at night in the hopes of gaining enough experience to land a job as a research analyst.

When that did happen a year later, I left home for good, but almost a decade later, after a career switch to journalism, I was a 30-year-old intern making $18,000 a year in Los Angeles. My mom took up permanent residence in the prayer closet. My dad told me to live my life and reach for my dreams. I took his advice.

I’m a generation ahead of millennials, but I feel a natural affinity with the cohort approaching their 30-something years faced with multiple recessions and cultural shifts. While the predominant narrative is that today’s young people are unmotivated or self-absorbed, two Harvard researchers suggest it’s not the kids, it’s the state of the economy.

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In viewing the markers of adulthood across more than a century and listening to the lost recordings of college students from 50 years ago, Nancy E. Hill and Alexis Redding, co-authors of ”The End of Adolescence: The Lost Art of Delaying Adulthood (Harvard University Press, $42), found that what we now view as delayed development is actually pretty typical. The 1950s, the period we use as a reference point, was the exception, said the authors in an essay for The Atlantic. High school education at the time was closely aligned with the job skills needed during the post-WWII economic boom, making it easier for a high school graduate to find a job that led to financial independence.

“We think of our 20s as this experimental free period,” said Kayleen Schaefer, author of “But You’re Still So Young: How Thirtysomethings Are Redefining Adulthood” (Dutton, $25). “That is accepted now but then you get to a hard line of turning 30 and it is like, snap into place … you’ve had time to figure it out. That is a tough wall to run into.”

Schaefer had her own issues navigating her way through her 30s. She didn’t hit all five milestones and wasn’t unhappy about it, but she did wonder if she had done things the right way. “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t alone, but as I started reporting, I wanted to tell other people they weren’t alone,” she said.

For some millennials stumbling into adulthood, the pandemic has only intensified those delays, Schaefer said. They have lost careers, moved home to live with parents and have continued to push the age of marriage and the age of childbirth higher.

Last week, the Census Bureau reported that the U.S. population grew by 7.4% over the previous decade, the smallest increase since the 1930s. Part of the reason is the declining birthrate.

Experts say we have yet to see those climbing ages of marriage and childbirth hit a plateau, but when they do — in 15 years or so — the benchmarks of the 1950s could become a thing of the past.

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Deianna Hamilton, 28, of Buckhead rode the pandemic curveball to a new career as a wedding planner, but when she announced she was leaving her corporate job, her parents almost had a heart attack. “They believed in me but it is scary for that generation to see how my generation is doing things,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton thought she had her life sketched out at age 18. She was going to be engaged by age 24 and have kids by 27. “I look back and laugh because when I was 24, I was not ready to be engaged, and last year, I was not ready to be a parent,” she said.

On New Year’s Eve, she and her friends went to a cabin in North Georgia and spent three days talking about the direction of their lives. “As long as I am on the trajectory I am on now, I don’t care about when I’m 30,” Hamilton said. “Being able to relinquish control and thrive in my lane — whatever it may be — that is where I am supposed to be.”

For some on the cusp of 30, imagining the future is less about hitting a prescribed set of benchmarks and more about living certain values.

Nisa Floyd, 26, of Fayetteville is certain that she wants to be a parent but is open to how that happens. She focuses instead on planning for the kind of parent she wants to be. “I have this fantasy in my head that I have a homestead where I can live off my own land and I am raising my children with the Montessori method,” she said.

In November, she closed on a home with six pecan trees where she plans to raise chickens and make that child-centered homestead a reality, but for now, she lives with her mom while her friends live in the house. Still, Floyd feels a sense of success. “It wasn’t so much that it was a home, it was that I planned something out and I did it. I had been floating around and doing things without intention,” Floyd said.

Schaefer says it is important for young adults to take small steps toward a goal they want to achieve and to worry less about the highlight reels their friends are posting on social media.

One of the eight individuals Schaefer featured in her book, a 36-year-old man from Austin, came up with a philosophy I can appreciate.

Constructing a life is a lot like building with Lego sets, he decided.

You put the blocks together as best you can and you don’t worry too much if it doesn’t look like the picture on the box.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com

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