- Societal shifts in development may partially explain the delay in feeling like an adult.
- Relative stability in certain traits and preferences may also be to blame.
- Childhood impressions of adults can create false assumptions and expectations about adulthood.
As far back as I can remember, my dad always struck me as the archetypal adult—strong, independent, authoritative, responsible. I still don't feel like as much of an adult at 48 years old as my dad seemed to me when he was 33. I've been married for 27 years, my oldest child is in high school, I have advanced degrees, and I'm financially independent. And while I don't feel like a child, I don't really feel like a true adult, either.
I know I'm not alone. Many of my friends and therapy clients have described a similar experience of not truly feeling like a grown-up. What accounts for this mismatch between external reality and the internal sense of one's life stage?
1. Societal Changes in Milestones of Adulthood
Part of the mismatch is based on societal shifts. Young adults are getting married later, having kids later, and often stay in graduate school well into their 30s. The average age of first-time home buyers in 1981 was 29, and by 2022 had risen to 36. Having kids later also means pushing off grandparenthood; becoming a parent at 25 makes it fairly easy to be a grandparent by age 50, whereas waiting till 35 could mean you're 70 by the time you have your first grandchild.
However, these objective delays in certain markers of adulthood are only part of the story. They can't explain why the sense of not being fully adult often persists despite having all the trappings of adulthood, as in my case.
2. The World Looks and Feels the Same
You might also feel like less of an adult because your first-person perspective hasn't changed. The world that you see looks largely the same as it looked when you were younger, and your day-to-day experience of being grown up probably isn't as different as your kid self imagined it would be.
This phenomenon is common across all ages, and explains why we often say things like, "I don't feel 40," or, "I still feel like I could be in college" as we enter midlife. The external markers of adulthood—a long-term partner, owning a home, full-time work—don't necessarily penetrate our fundamental sense of identity. We know them as facts, but they might not affect the more abstract sense of what it is to "feel like an adult."
3. Your Likes and Preferences Haven't Changed
Research shows that our preferences are often set in adolescence or early adulthood. For example, your favorite music—what researchers call your "musical identity"—tends to be the songs that came out when you were 10 to 20 years old. That was definitely my experience; Tom Petty has been my favorite artist since I was in eighth grade.
The same might be true for other aspects of your life, such as
- the sports you watch
- your style of dress
- the kind of person you're drawn to
- your tastes in food
- your assumptions about life
This is not to say that we don't change and evolve over time, but that many of our characteristics are fairly stable.
4. Childhood Impressions of Adults
Perhaps the biggest reason you don't feel like a real grown-up comes from the impressions you formed of adults when you were a child, which are largely unchanged. Greater size, knowledge, and authority gave the grown-ups around you an aura of mythic adulthood. They probably seemed to have things together, to be in control, to know the answers to life's big questions. In contrast, you know you haven't figured out the whole life thing, and so you're still waiting till your inner experience matches your expectations of what adulthood would feel like.
But, in reality, those childhood impressions were an illusion. I know now that my dad struggled with self-doubt, trauma, depression, and the inherent stress and uncertainty that come with being alive. Your own parents, teachers, doctors, coaches, and every other adult you knew when you were a kid probably didn't feel the way you thought they did. They might have seemed to be in charge and at ease, but inside they were just as unsure as you are now.
So maybe we actually do feel like adults—but feeling like an adult isn't what we thought it would be. Perhaps you don't have to keep waiting for that moment when you magically feel grown up. If you're a grown person, the way you feel is what it feels like to be an adult, with all its confusion, insecurity, and joy. This is it. The truth is that the adults you looked up to were fallible humans doing the best they could—just like you.
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National Association of Realtors (2023). 2023 NAR profile of home buyers and sellers. https://www.nar.realtor/research-and-statistics/research-reports/highli…
Way, S. F., Gil, S., Anderson, I., & Clauset, A. (2019, July). Environmental changes and the dynamics of musical identity. In Proceedings of the International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media (Vol. 13, pp. 527–536).