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Harvard EdCast: Transitioning into Adulthood

Professor Nancy Hill and Lecturer Alexis Redding discuss generational changes in adolescent development and how to offer better supports to emerging adults.
Alexis Redding and Nancy Hill

When Professor Nancy Hill and Lecturer Alexis Redding discovered an untapped collection of college student interviews from the 1970s, they thought they would find remarkable differences across generations. Instead, what they found were common challenges and anxieties that mark the end of adolescence. It turns out that today’s adolescents have a lot more in common with their grandparents and great-grandparents.

Learn more about The End of Adolescence: The Lost Art of Delaying Adulthood by Nancy Hill and Alexis Redding

“Every generation talks about how much harder they had it coming of age than the current generation. And they see themselves as having it together, being more responsible, not needing as much help. And that's a little revisionist history,” Hill says. “And one of the real benefits of our work is that it helps people remember how it really was, that these data gave us a unique opportunity to hear a generation coming of age as they were coming of age, not a reflection on how they came of age, but each year what they were grappling with.”

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Hill and Redding share what this means for adolescent development and how today’s youth aren’t “overparented” and we need to offer better support to young adults.


  • Normalize the challenges in transitioning to college and adulthood. Adolescents shared their struggles around arriving at college and fitting in, as well as the perception that everyone around them had already figured it out. “For our first-year student interviews, what we often heard were voices of people who felt like everybody else had figured it out, except for them. But we heard this from all of the students. They were all looking around and it felt like everyone else had it all together, but the reality is everyone felt equally lost,” Redding says. “And I think being able to recognize and name that for students on the way in, as parents to prepare our students for the fact that it will be challenging at times, for student affairs professionals, for those who are leading orientation, creating conversations around what that actually means, and how do you navigate those challenges, and building in support, as opposed to just glossing over the very real challenging moments that we know that they'll experience.”
  • Foster mentorship. Young adults rely a lot on mentors to help figure things out. Mentors can play a supportive role in helping students understand the steps that you need to take to following a path or figuring out how to achieve their goals.
  • Focus on developing authentic communication. Parents often struggle with their college aged children to let go of their former roles of authority. Adolescents recognize this and refrain from sharing their real aspirations and values with their parents. Parents should strive to become better listeners to better understand who their child may be rather than trying to solve your child’s problems, says Hill.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast.

If you think that today's college students are all that different from their parents, or even their grandparents, think again. Harvard Professors Nancy Hill and Alexis Redding say that despite college students being digital natives and supposedly over parented, that they are shockingly developing similarly as generations before them.

When Alexis and Nancy discovered an untapped archive of college student interviews from the 1970s, they set out to study development across generations. They anticipated finding big changes in those 50 years, but instead what these generations have in common tells us more about how we understand those final important years of adolescent development. I asked Nancy what this all might really mean?

Nancy Hill: The real message and most important message is that youth are experiencing the same kinds of things, and challenges, and anxieties, that their grandparents experienced in the 1970s, that their great, great-grandparents experienced in the 1940s, and even further back, that youth experienced at the turn of the 20th century, and the rise of the high school movement that better prepared youth to transition from education and into the job market.

There are several markers and theories of the transition to adulthood. Leaving home, finding a job, getting married, having children. In all of those markers, the linchpin or predictor of them is being able to find a job and finish education. Every time the economy is difficult and youth have trouble finding a job, we see a delay in the transition to adulthood. At the turn of the 20th century, in 1890 to 1920, the economy was moving from an agrarian one to an industrialized one, and people were moving from rural areas into the cities. They did not yet have the skills to transition to an industrialized workforce.

Then you saw the rise of the high school movement, which better prepared you for the job market. And then the post-war boom, and sure enough, by the 1950s people are able to make a smooth transition from high school into a job that pays a living wage.

We don't see that at the turn of the 20th century, and we're not seeing it now. Youth are taking much longer because they need different skills that they're not getting in high school in order to transition to a job that pays a living wage.

Jill Anderson: Right. So it's more of a financial issue here where young people are getting jobs and rising a little bit later and that's where you see that delay. It really has nothing to do with maturity.

Nancy Hill: No, it has nothing to do with maturity, but it has everything to do with how we help youth develop the kinds of skills that they need so that they can make a transition into the job market.

The other thing that we've been talking about is this notion that youth need this extended time, that there's a benefit to extending adolescence, that we don't want to rush them into adulthood. That there's some benefit there.

Jill Anderson: I think there's people who are going to hear this and be just so surprised because it seems amazing that we can be in this century with all the changes that have happened in the world, all the digital and technological progress. And that it's the same. It's just kind of crazy. So did you feel surprised when you came across that?

Alexis Redding: We were absolutely surprised. Nancy and I sat at the table in her office and read these transcripts over and it was almost unbelievable to us the resonance across the generations. And so we did everything that you do as a researcher to test this hypothesis that there was something to same. We coded these data three different times using three different methods just to make sure that this pattern actually existed. And we also took samples of these data to about 400 student affairs professionals, and those who are working with college students today, and we would present them without the added detail of the generation that they came from. Not mentioning that they were from the '40s or the '70s, and have a moment of revelation. And every time the audience would gasp with the realization that these snippets that they were hearing that felt so contemporary, there was this sense of disbelief, how could this be? And yet this is what the data was telling us.

Nancy Hill: And so when you listen to these tapes, and you see the notes that were taken as they met with the counselors, you would hear things like, "My parents are forcing me to become a lawyer. My parents are mad at me because I didn't do well enough in this course." Or, "I really want to study romance literature, but my dad wants me to go into business. And my dad called up the Dean and asked." All that kind of helicopter parenting that you hear about today, these college students were feeling in the 1940s, in the 1950s, in the 1970. Students wanted, "I just want time to figure myself out. I want to take time off from school. My parents see no value in taking time off. They see the academics as most important, but I need more time."

Alexis Redding: One of the interesting things as we were listening to these voices, which we digitized, and so we're listening to these old reel to reel tapes that have been rescued, through our ear buds, hearing these voices from across the generation. I was in the process of conducting a study with students from the class of 2020 at the same time that we were sort of involved in this discovery. And I actually had to set aside these data and listening to them, for about six months, because I would get confused as to which students I was listening to from which generation. And it would only be those moments where there was some anachronistic detail that would flag for me that, "Oh, no, these are the 1970s students."

So, they would ask for a light so they could smoke during their interview. Well, that's not contemporary, or they would talk about President Nixon or the war in Vietnam, but all of the contents specific when they were talking about their lived experience, the students in my study also came from Harvard College, they were walking the same pathways. They were going into the same buildings. They were even taking classes that had the same name, across the generations. And to see that level of continuity in real time was incredibly powerful.

Jill Anderson: How did these common narratives like the helicopter parenting become so mainstream when the research is obviously saying something so different?

Nancy Hill: Well, what's interesting is that generation on generation, we all think we had it harder than kids today. Every generation thinks that. The narrative of they're the ones who walked uphill in the snow to school and the kids today are coddled. I mean, every generation talks about how much harder they had it coming of age than the current generation. And they see themselves as having it together, being more responsible, not needing as much help. And that's a little revisionist history. And one of the, I think, real benefits of our work is that it helps people remember how it really was, that these data gave us a unique opportunity to hear a generation coming of age as they were coming of age, not a reflection on how they came of age, but each year what they were grappling with.

And one of the really unique things about these data is that all of the narratives stemmed from one question. And that question was, "What stood out to you over the last year?" And so each year at the end of the academic year, they would come in and they sit down and the interview would say, "What stood out to you in the last year?" And then they talked anywhere from 40 to 90 minutes about what stood out. They weren't probed about any particular thing, or there was no expectation that they should talk about academics or families or friendships or romantic relationships, just what stood out. And so what emerged were these beautiful narratives of what was really on their minds. What made them excited? What made them anxious? And this is what we got.

Jill Anderson: It's interesting, because it's almost just like young people or young adults are really just misunderstood in a way, even though adults have already gone through that process and it's remarkably similar no matter what decade it took place. Why is it important for us to better understand the developmental traits and things that are happening among young adults?

Nancy Hill: I think it's important so that we can better support them. And so that we can build these bridges across the generations and build stronger relationships and better prepare them. One of the things that came up a lot in the interviews is that the students wanted more time because they felt like they had too many options and no clear guidance for how to make decisions. They were grappling with how do they make the most of the opportunities that they have, but feeling an enormous amount of pressure to make the right decisions, but no real guidance in how to make those decisions. And I think by understanding their call for more time, which sounds like they're lazy and irresponsible and not ready to grow up, combined with the fact that they're in college, so they kind of get more time. So why are they asking for more time when they have more time?

And what we learned is what they need to make better use of the extended time that they have. So if they're taking longer to mature and transition to adulthood, how do we better support that so that they can use the time in ways that will help them make the most of it.

Alexis Redding: One of the things that we hope happens in reading the voices of these students is that we create a sense of empathy for how hard it is to ask these important developmental questions of who am I, what do I value, what do I want out of the future? And when we think back across our own developmental experiences, we tend to connect the dots in a way that makes sense. And we forget that even though everything turned out in a way where there's an arc, how uncertain those moments felt in the process, how we didn't know in real time what would actually happen at the end of the day. And I think that these voices grappling with the uncertainty and that fear of making the wrong choice and narrowing down options too soon, really can help remind people of what it's actually like to make these big decisions at such a young age.

And one of the key findings is the role of mentors and how powerful it can be to have the right kind of mentor at the right moment. And so understanding not only the uncertainty, but also hearing what students actually need from us, and what they need from us is not additional pressure to hurry up and make a decision. They need scaffolding around making that decision and narrowing what feels like an overwhelming number of choices.

Jill Anderson: To follow up on that, I just want to know what some of these better supports would look like?

Nancy Hill: Well, when we think about the mentors, people, that's not a new idea. There's mentoring programs all over the place. But what emerged that is new is the kind of mentors that people talked about. These students talked about mentors it turned out in three kinds of ways as we looked across students, They talked about mentors that we would call are that are mirrors, that are people that really just hold up the mirror and affirm who they are. When the students felt doubtful that they were going to be good at something, or they should do something or, having someone tell them and hold up that mirror was one kind of mentor.

The second kind of mentor, we called mentors who are windows, and windows are mentors that broadened students' horizons, that we found that students felt that they had to go with the predictable path. So the pre-professional programs are often these predictable paths, but if they had a novel major or interest, they didn't really have a good sense of how to make that into a career and make that into a meaningful life. And so having mentors who were windows that could help them connect the dots. How could I be a musician and a physicist? How can I integrate those? And having someone who could broaden their horizons.

And then the third kind of mentor is a guiding light, and these guiding lights are mentors that show them how to do the thing that they want to do. Here are the steps that you need to take. Here's how you do it. Follow these paths. And so those three types of mentors emerged in these interviews. And so that's one level of supports.

And another level of supports is around decision-making. I don't know if, Alexis, if you would like to talk about that.
Alexis Redding: So I actually wasn't thinking about decision-making. I was thinking about the transition to college process, which is one of those places where I feel like we can make such an important difference in naming and normalizing how hard it is to transition into a new environment, to build new relationships, and to start to ask these questions about who we are in this new place, and what we take with us from home and how we're changing. As well as how we transition back when we go home to our home environment and navigate that familiar space when we have changed in the interim.

And one of the things that we talk about in my college student development course a lot is how important it is just to name for people, the challenge, and to normalize that this is part of the process. We tend to talk about the college experience as the best years of your life. You make the best friends that you ever have. And students who have heard those narratives, who don't have the reality check of but it will also feel lonely at times, it will also be a challenge to figure out who those friends are, feel as if they're failing in some way.

And so for our first year student interviews, what we often heard were voices of people who felt like everybody else had figured it out, except for them. But we heard this from all of the students. They were all looking around and it felt like everyone else had it all together, but the reality is everyone felt equally lost. And I think being able to recognize and name that for students on the way in, as parents to prepare our students for the fact that it will be challenging at times, for student affairs professionals, for those who are leading orientation, creating conversations around what that actually means, and how do you navigate those challenges, and building in support, as opposed to just glossing over the very real challenging moments that we know that they'll experience.

Nancy Hill: In thinking about the transition from home and back to home, the students talked about how hard it was to go home. And they talked about the challenges in negotiating their relationships with their parents. And we know that, from developmental, science that this renegotiating of the relationships with your parents is a key developmental task for adolescents into adulthood. And we find that parents are often prepared to, with some joy and some sadness, to send their kids off to college, but then their parents aren't really prepared for how to receive their kids back. No one talks about how to receive them back.

And these students in our interviews talked about their relationships with their parents, how they wanted their parents to listen to them, to hear how they're developing, to not to judge them as they were developing, but to have real authentic communication about who they are and who they were becoming. And instead so many of them felt pressured to compromise to what their parents wanted or are somehow trying to create a false sense of conformity of, "I'm going to conform to your wishes, but I'm going to keep my true self apart." When what they really wanted was authentic connections and authentic communication and to be able to share their true selves.

But parents aren't prepared to receive these students back, but students time and again talked about wanting their parents to share in what they were experiencing, but not feeling like they could share these vulnerable parts of themselves that their parents were going to question. And so I think part of what these data show us is to help parents have those kinds of authentic communications and conversations with their college students.

Alexis Redding: So much of our focus is on creating that dialogue between parents and students today.

Jill Anderson: I keep thinking as both of you are talking and you mentioned the loneliness and the isolation and it makes me think a lot about how often we hear about mental health issues among this age group. I know loneliness has been highlighted even recently, and even though it was tied to COVID, I know that this age group tends to be a little bit more lonely than some of the other ages that are out there. So it sounds like it all really ties together quite a bit with the things that you're mentioning.
Nancy Hill: Yeah. Our students talked a lot about being lonely. And what was interesting about the loneliness is that, one, they felt that they were the only one, which we now know from data that 60% of students feel lonely in those first semester. But what was also interesting was that they weren't necessarily finding friends where they thought they would find them. They had this idea that they were going to find friends in the classroom, or friends in the dining hall, and student after student talked about how surprised they were that they were going to class and they didn't know anybody's name in these classes. One or two students reflected back that, "In high school, you knew every kid's name, you knew everyone in the class." And how different that was in college. So they weren't finding friendships where they thought they would find them. And so the skills of friendship development that they had brought with them, wasn't serving them well in those early weeks.

Jill Anderson: Can I just track back to your mentioning, Nancy, the authentic communication because I feel like if there are parents listening, it's a tough age. Your child is no longer really a child, and they're not at home and they're coming in and they're going, and how can parents navigate that?

Nancy Hill: I think part of what it looks like or what it feels like for parents is that when parents send their kids out, there's still all of these relational pieces that they dealt with while they were in the house. So if there were debates and discussions about rules and hairstyle and clothing that were embattled in high school, when kids are in college, they now have the freedom to make those choices, which can feel affrontive to parents, that these values and standards that they have tried to instill, and now children have all this freedom, and they might not be making the kinds of decisions that parents would have them make. So there's still that tension and that struggle.

And for parents, I think part of it is realizing that some of those kinds of places where there's debate around authority, who has authority to make those decisions, is really trying to let go of those things, and realize that they are going to experiment in ways that we might think are not in their best interest and that they are going to miss class and wear their hair in ways we wouldn't approve or piercings or what have you, but really move to those bigger conversations about values in life. And it's hard. I'm a mom of a college student. It's hard, but at the same time wanting to have those deep conversations where we're not quick to solve, but we're long to listen.  We've made some mistakes and we don't want our children to make the same mistakes that we made, but realizing they have to make those mistakes so that they can learn in the same ways that we did.

And I think part of the thing about the helicopter parenting is not so much the smothering. It's not wanting our children to make the mistakes that we made. If we can prevent some pain or prevent some stumbling or some mistakes, that we want to go in and do that. And so it comes from a good place, but at the same time, we've got to be able to let them make those mistakes and have their own consequences. And so sometimes as parents, we're quick to want to come up with a solution. And particularly if we think, "Oh, gosh, they're going to miss this opportunity." And we don't want them to miss it.

But what they want, the students want, is just to be heard. And sometimes if they feel like parents are going to judge them before they've quite figured themselves out, then they feel like they have to figure themselves all out before they can present something back to their parents.

Jill Anderson: COVID's on everybody's minds. And I'm sure people are going to wonder if COVID might significantly alter adolescence development in some way down the road. What are your thoughts on that?

Nancy Hill: In some ways to say COVID not having an impact would be not paying attention to the fact that COVID is having an impact on everything. And I don't think we will know the kind of impact that COVID will have, but I do know that youth still need the same kinds of things. That they still need time to figure themselves out. They still need the skills to make good decisions and to build connections with their families and to build new communities. They still need to be able to connect their sense of purpose with a profession. They still need the kinds of cognitive skills to make good decisions.

And if we'll remember, there was a pandemic in a 100 years ago in 1918 to 1921. And when you look at how kids came of age in that time, they still needed the same kinds of things. They still needed the kinds of skills that would enable them to move into the job market. And I think it will take more time for youth to move into the job market now, but they still need to be prepared for it. And so in some ways it doesn't mean we're doing anything different. It means that we're doubling down on the things that we know that kids need. And when we think about those who are graduating from high school or should be going to college, and imagined that they were going away, many of them are imagining all of the experiences that our students talked about were the most important. The coursework and academics weren't the most important. And we hear students lamenting the roommate experience, the lamenting the ability to go off and make their own decisions, and wear their hair the way they want to wear their hair or whatever it is. And to try out their independence.
Kids need that opportunity. I think the ways in which we can facilitate that, I think we should, and it's not a frivolous privilege to be able to do these things. It is an essential part of coming of age.

Alexis Redding: One of the ways that the conversation has shifted at the college level is a growing recognition of all of these opportunities for students to get to know each other outside of the classroom and and not just through extracurriculars, but through the 3:00 AM dorm conversation or those happenstance encounters where you're continuing a conversation about a book that you were reading in class into the dining hall. And there's a growing sense among student affairs professionals that there's a real need to try to replicate those things in virtual space. And of course it's so challenging to do that.

But my hope is that as we transition back to campuses, to college campuses, whether students are living there or not, this recognition of these important opportunities to build communities, to get to know each other, and to carve out this space for these serendipitous encounters to happen won't fall off of our radar. That we'll continue to remember how much learning actually happened outside of the classroom.

Jill Anderson: Nancy Hill is a developmental psychologist and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Alexis Redding is an educational ethnographer and lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. They are co-authors of the book The End Of Adolescence: The Lost Art of Delaying Adulthood. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.