April 14, 2010
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.
So if good jobs are scarce, leading young adults to delay marriage and denying them quality health insurance, where do they get disposable income? As the health insurance mandate reflects, Boomer parents have stepped into the void. According to the Network on Transitions to Adulthood, 40 percent of Americans between 18 and 24 receive $10,000 or more from their parents each year. It’s not that young people don’t want to work, the network cautions. But it would appear that many parents are willing to help their children make ends meet.
“The continuing relationship between parents and young adult children is a really momentous change in the operational meaning of being a parent in the early 21st century,” Brookings senior fellow William Galston told The Washington Post. “No one resists or resents it. Young people expect it.”
They expect it because their parents won’t let them fail. Some employers report phone calls from parents demanding to know why their son or daughter did not get a job. It’s understandable that parents would want to ensure a secure standard of living for their children. But that’s just the problem. Parents may actually train their children to immediately expect the same standard of living they achieved after decades of work. No wonder their children don’t think they can get married until 30 and have secured a suitable paycheck, good health benefits, and a nice home of their own.
These trends have rippled through our churches, where few are blessed with a large crowd of 20-something singles. Scouring church classifieds, I’ve noticed several openings for pastors who want to reach this growing group. Churches rightly recognize that they can’t wait for these young adults to marry and start families before they come back to church.
Still, I wonder about the potential pitfall of catering to these trends without challenging them. We can’t do much about the macroeconomic factors that have destabilized the job market for young employees. But we can question the latent assumptions of consumerism when they control decisions to delay marriage and depend on parents. We need to be sure our 20-something ministries have a vision for church integration and service that transcends the need for an older youth group. How can we help 20-somethings work unto the Lord in their vocations, serve according to their gifts in the local church, and start new, separate families?
So go ahead, 20-somethings, get married if you meet that special someone. You’ll never have as much money as you want or think you need. Consider singleness, so long as you’ve been called. Serve your neighbors and fellow believers as your spiritual family. Use your parents’ health insurance until 26 if you must and they remain willing. Just don’t presume upon their kindness to support your nightlife. And by all means, please don’t let them call your boss.