Mark my words: Hi, I’m a 27-year-old teenager

When I was 19 years old, absolutely no one considered me a teenager. To be clear, this is not because I was uncommonly mature (I was not). No one considered me a teenager at 19 because no one in the early 1980s considered 19-year-olds to be teenagers.

I was not a fully fledged, independent adult. But I was given the benefit of the doubt, and treated as an apprentice adult. This is no longer true. Adolescence has extended dramatically at both ends.

Sure, a 27-year-old isn’t technically a teenager. But the average 27-year-old is just barely reaching the waning years of an extended adolescence that stretches, according to researchers, to about 30 years old for most.

Seriously, this redefines everything, right? Hey, an advantage to me, as a 54-year-old, is that I get to stay ‘middle-aged’ for a whole lot longer!

One shift that has led to this extension is the overwhelming isolation of teenagers, and often of young adults. Teenagers spend almost all their time in a world completely isolated from adults, even in many of our churches. Can you see how one of the results of this would be teenagers continuing in an extended form of teenage life? How could we expect them to do anything else? We’ve removed the ‘on-ramps’ to adulthood. We don’t give them the meaningful responsibility and expectation that is absolutely essential to transitioning into adulthood. In fact, we treat them like children throughout their teenage years and often into their young 20s. The fancy word for this, by the way, is ‘infantilisation’.

Adolescence lasts so long now that researchers talk about it in three distinct phases, each becoming its own developmental life stage with its own field of research:

  • 10-14: young teen (or early adolescence)
  • 15-20: late teen (or middle adolescence)
  • 21-30: emerging adulthood

Now, you might be saying: “Marko, hold on. As much as I care about those 20-somethings and their stuck-ness, they’re not my primary calling. I’m called to teenagers, and this doesn’t really seem to be about teenagers.”

I hope you can hear my shouting, “Wrong!” all the way across the pond from my home in California.

Think of it this way. We’ve taken what was an 18-month process in the early 1900s, and a six-year process in the 1970s, and we’ve made it an almost-20-year process. That means all the stuff going on in the process is extended and protracted.

I’ll give you an example: while adolescence begins with puberty at a younger and younger age, abstract thinking is being postponed. And abstract thinking is required to process the tasks of adolescence: identity, purpose and belonging.

Another is that meaningful responsibility is postponed. And another is that teenagers and young adults are, as I wrote above, treated as if they were children for longer and longer.

While some adolescent issues are coming earlier and earlier, others are consistently being postponed, and are not faced until the mid-to-late-20s. That means the teenagers in your youth group (even if you have nothing to do with the 20-somethings, who likely don’t attend your church anyway) are a different breed of teenager compared with you at that age.

In light of this, consider the following questions:

  • What would it look like for you to be a countercultural influence on this trend?
  • What would it look like for us to offer teenagers meaningful responsibility and expectation in our churches?
  • What would it look like for us to stop treating teenagers like children? What would it look like for us to reintroduce on-ramps to adulthood?
  • What would it look like for your church and youth ministry to give teenagers the opportunity to rub shoulders with adults in the world of adults; not only with adults who come into the world of teenagers?

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