The Hansen Report: Is 26 the New 18?
What the health insurance reforms tell us about the new age of adult accountability.

Following this blog, I figured the best way to rack up comments was to write about health care. So I thought I might explore one element of the recently enacted health-reform legislation that grabbed my attention as a prospective pastor. Though I worked for a short time on Capitol Hill, much of the far-reaching legislation eludes my understanding. We will be sorting out the implications of these reforms for years, if not decades. But one provision stands out as noteworthy, because it exposes a major social change with questionable merit. Until young adults turn 26, insurers are now required to let their parents retain them as dependents, no matter whether they have married or found gainful employment.

The move will benefit many of the 13.2 million Americans between the ages of 19 and 29 who currently do not have health insurance. According to the Commonwealth Fund, almost 30 percent of this age group foregoes health insurance for a variety of reasons. Students may continue from college to graduate school through at least their mid-20s. An unhealthy job market directs others into internships, residencies, or part-time positions that do not provide benefits. Youth (with its high risk-tolerance) convinces some to take their chances that no catastrophic illness will befall them.

This new insurance mandate matches the new social reality for 20-somethings who cannot or do not become independent adults when they turn 18, or even 21. According to the Brookings Institution, about 70 percent of 30-year-old adults in 1960 had married, started a family, and achieved financial independence. That figure had dropped below 40 percent by 2000. More young men and women are attending college, but the median number of years needed to complete a degree has risen from four to five since 1970. Men between the ages of 25 and 34 without college degrees earned less money in 2002 than did men from the same age group in 1975, when adjusted for inflation. But their 2002 peers who finished college and completed at least some graduate school earned more than both groups. So if you want to achieve economic independence in your 20s today, college and perhaps even graduate school has become something of a necessity.

Many young adults, regardless of gender or ethnicity, associate marriage with economic independence, so they have delayed this common transition to adulthood. In 1970, 69 percent of white men married by the time they were 25, according to Brookings. That figure dropped to just 33 percent by 2000. The declines between 1970 and 2000 were similarly steep for black men (from 56 percent to 18 percent), white women (81 percent to 47 percent), and black women (64 percent to 24 percent). The level of student debt is a contributing factor, and a difficult job market is another.

April 14, 2010

Displaying 1–10 of 12 comments


April 24, 2010  1:15am

As one of the young, I must say, that implying that because I am not married, I am not an adult is offensive. I have been on my own since I graduated high school. I do not ask my parents for money, but gratefully receive birthday gifts. I am not married. Not because I feel I am not financially secure, or because I don't know about my job situation, but because God has chosen not to bring that special person into my life yet. I pray for my future spouse everyday and for the path that will lead us to each other. I have followed God's calling on my life into the third world, and so, at the moment, have limited options for a husband let alone a choice to make. While I do not expect my mother to provide for me in any way, it is helpful to know that they stop-gap time between me leaving my post and returning to America and trying to get settled will come with health insurance is one weight that I can let roll of my shoulders. Part of the dilemma with getting married now-a-days is that they world has become global. We don't marry someone we grew up with our entire life and settle in the same town and keep attending the same church and know all of our neighbors. The work force and just general life take us all over the world. Until we find our own 'home' or have a general idea what we want for our life, we can't settle down with someone. If God tells me I'm going to live here for the rest of my life, then my spouse has to be ready for that as well, but if he doesn't know, or is hesitant, that can impact the work that is being done here. Marriage has gotten more complicated as the times have changed. And I've been told that by people who have been and are still married. Even in their long term marriages, difficulties have come because of the change in the world. In my opinion, it is the fact that we keep 'advancing' that is changing the outlook for those of us still single. We have more to chose from, and that makes our decisions that much more difficult. I am not going to be living on a farm and marrying the boy down the street anymore. Who knows, I may end up marrying someone from THIS country. And that will bring along its own set of complications. Please consider THIS when you write an article about this generation. We are the middle generation between community living and global living and are trying to figure out how it's supposed to fit together.

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Jim Martin

April 16, 2010  3:55am

I am grateful for your post as it highlights the ongoing trend of delayed independence/adulthood, etc. I do think it is important that the church participates in serious reflection as to the implications of this and how local communities of faith might frame a response (perhaps in how we do ministry in the midst of this).

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April 15, 2010  6:35am

Pretty much all the comments missed what I see as the main point of this post: this is about PARENTS, and their inability to teach children that failure is as important an aspect of life as success. I do not blame 20-somethings for their situation. Parenthood has become an exercise where every effort is spent to shield their precious psyches from all harm. I'm not advocating irresponsible behavior from parents, but raising children is not simply about making them comfortable and catching them when they are nearing a path that might lead to falling. I'm in the middle of raising two kids, and yes watching them fail is very very hard. But after dusting themselves off, they are better prepared to face the challenge the next time.

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April 14, 2010  9:56pm

So the 24-year-old unemployed college dropouts playing Wii in Mom's basement are covered. What a relief. I didn't think that the health care bill had any redeeming features. Now I know better.

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April 14, 2010  7:17pm

Sue; I agree wholeheartedly, you can be (and I think that I am) an adult even if you are not married. And yet, in these sorts of columns, that pesky business about marriage always comes up. Whether young, single twenty-somethings are full adults depends on who you ask. If you ask most of us, we tend to define it in terms of being self-sufficient, with financial independence rating very highly towards being an adult. Jeffery Arnett demonstrates this in his book, "Emerging Adulthood", where he has interviewed many people my age (18-25). When a significant portion of people my age have to rely on financial assistance from parents to make it, than those folks interpret that as not having reached full adulthood. If you ask sociologists and historians, they often point out that in many societies, marriage is the last rite of passage before full adulthood is recognized by the society. Several previous authors on this site have brought this up in connection with the raising age of marriage, and suggested that people are getting married later because they want to remain adolescents. And surely you would agree that most churches do not begin treating people like adults until they are married. So by "last few steps to full adulthood", I meant getting married and establishing a stable vocational identity and career. I don't mean basic things like acting like an adult or being basically responsible or whatever. I would actually prefer that these later steps not be seen as integral to early adulthood, as you suggest. But the work/financial independence is deeply ingrained into my generation's meaning of what it means to be an adult, and the marriage thing is deeply ingrained into the church's understanding of adulthood. Seeing as I think these are indeed worthy goals, sometimes I just go with it rather than arguing over semantics. By mentoring, I don't mean an adult helping out an adolescent, I mean an adult who's further along providing perspective and wisdom to an adult who is still figuring things out. Maybe some people my age don't feel any need for that, but I definitely still need that in my life. Perhaps I shouldn't have spoken for everyone.

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eric Clarkson

April 14, 2010  5:14pm

Correction... You said, "Until young adults turn 26, insurers are now required to let their parents retain them as dependents, no matter whether they have married or found gainful employment." Section 2714 line 15 reads: "A group health plan and a health insurance issuer offering group or individual health insurance coverage that provides dependent coverage of children shall continue to make such coverage available for an adult child (who is not married) until the child turns 26 years of age." Once your kiddo gets married, he/she can no longer be covered under the parent's insurance.

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April 14, 2010  4:13pm

@ Tom The "last few steps into adulthood" should have been taken by the time a person is out of college, at least by age 22 or so. It's not about marriage as much as it is about growing up. You can be an adult and be single. And on the other don't have to be in the ideal job to get married. Maybe you do plan to leave your job in a few years; so what? Take a spouse with you on that journey! I have many 20-something friends who are married and raising a family - most not in ideal jobs or financial situations, but they're adults and they make it work. We don't need to be "mentored into adulthood"; that happened when we were 18 - 21. We ARE adults now.

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April 14, 2010  3:41pm

All great comments so far. And thank you for a new oxymoron: "OLDER YOUTH GROUPS" By the time the 40 is the new 18 (and I do know some 40-somethings who would qualify for that one) I think we will be at the place where even the poorest 50% of Americans will be paying 50% of their income in taxes as they do in Europe. Many of our national problems will be solved however, not the least of which will be immigration because opportunity and the economy will not be significantly different from any place else.

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April 14, 2010  3:28pm

Okay, as a twenty-something who broadly fits the profile, I have more than just a few things to say. One, I'm getting tired of feeling critiqued. Many authors on this website are apparently very concerned that I'm not married yet. There must be something wrong with me and those who are like me. I must live it up with my friends in my "nightlife" and have my parents fight my battles for me. My generation must be more selfish, or less committed, or blah blah blah... Not that the author ONLY did this kind of analysis. There is a sort of grudging admission that economic factors have changed. (Should I feel somewhat less on the hook?) And normally, I'm the first to attack consumerism as a culprit for all things socially undesirable and un-Christian. But making that the culprit can only mean those that delay marriage have made consumption their primary goal in life. Certainly SOME folks probably do delay marriage for that reason. Those single 20-somethings I know that haven't finished college are having trouble finding work at places like Starbucks right now. They're competing with all the 20-somethings I know that HAVE finished college and who are now working at Starbucks. This affects dating and marriage! If you are either not working, or like most folks, working at a job that you don't intend to keep past a few years, then you aren't stable. You don't know where you will be next year, or the next. If you don't know where you will be, than investing in a long-term relationship makes much less sense. You might move, or go back to school, or whatever. So getting a stable job MIGHT be about consumerism, but it MIGHT be just as simple as being able to think, "Okay, I know I can be reasonably confident that I'm going to be physically in the same location for the next year and half, or about as long as it would reasonably take to meet someone and move gradually towards engagement." And what's even more frustrating as a twenty something is that even if YOU are in that position of being ready (which happens in pretty brief windows from my experience) you still have to find someone else who is Christian, attractive, and has at least reasonably similar life goals. And then, THEY also have to be thinking like they are stable enough to pursue a relationship, and they have to think all of the above things about you as well. It's a wonder anyone gets married. Oh, and to top it all off, most of our peers have decided to leave the church. That's right, the exodus of 20-somethings from the church means that its actually EVEN HARDER to meet someone at church and get married. I go to a big church and there still aren't that many of us 20-somethings relative to everyone else. And dating in the church means risking community for some folks. Around half of the relationships that don't work seem to mean that one or both people don't feel comfortable anymore in the group, even if they weren't dating very long. When the group is one of your primary sources of support, that can make dating feel even riskier. I fully realize this post is pretty much a rant at this point. But I don't know how else to communicate to people who are so "worried" about single young people that it is simply so very not helpful when they chide us. From my perspective, it feels like you really don't understand us at all. How many twenty-somethings have you actually talked to? Next time you are reading another piece of "disturbing" sociological literature about twenty-somethings, stop fretting and invite a twenty-something out for lunch. We don't need youth groups and we don't need criticism, but we desperately need some good mentoring to help us make the last few steps into full adulthood. Whew.

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April 14, 2010  1:06pm

Colin, I think you raise some really important questions. The gospel is both incarnational and transformative. The Church can't ignore the needs of 20-somethings, but it also ought not to reinforce their shortcomings. Perhaps this is more evidence that segregated youth programs that depend on attracting youth and focus on programs tailored to their interests and hobbies are a bad idea in the first place. Because now we're left with 20-somethings that need a special program for them, too. I think this trend exposes more problems than just a flawed youth ministry model, though. Certainly we need to spur on our youth and 20-somethings to personal growth, to discipline that will enable them to be "more than conquerors" in life. But we also haven't done a very good job training our parents to be very good parents, either. Better for parents to be the catalysts for the growth of their children than for the church to try to become everyone's surrogate. It seems like we've capitulated to the idol of comfort again. "Parents, make sure your kids are happy; do whatever it takes to keep them that way." "Kids, someone will always be here to clean up your messes and put a roof over your head. And when you grow up, the important thing is to make enough money so you can do the same for your kids." How can we take up our cross for the mission of God if we're so consumed with making our kids and ourselves happy and comfortable?

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