July 29, 2023 - 8:00am

A new survey reveals that only 55% of Gen Z and millennials plan to have children. One in four of those surveyed, aged between 18 and 34, has ruled out parenthood entirely, with the most common reason cited being “wanting time for themselves”.

Why this increasing need for more “me time”? A likely reason is that young people are now navigating an era of “extended adolescence”

In recent decades, various shifts, from the rising cost of living to the expansion of higher education, have led to both millennials and Gen Z reaching traditional milestones much later than their predecessors. Millennials are living at home, as well as delaying marriage and procreation, in record numbers. Meanwhile, members of Gen Z are less likely to have experienced adult activities like going on a date, working for pay, learning to drive, or having sex, compared to teens in the preceding five decades. Given that many young adults still feel like children themselves, it’s no surprise that they are delaying or rejecting parenthood, choosing instead to extend their “me time”. 

Modern culture also continually facilitates and encourages this extended adolescence. In our materialistic and individual-centred age, the pursuit of personal desires and self-discovery is often valued above all else, with traditional bonds seen as constraints. 

Research by Professor Jean Twenge and her colleagues has examined the values of high school seniors from 1976 to 2006. They discovered that millennials are increasingly driven by extrinsic concerns such as money, fame and image, while moving away from intrinsic concerns like community and affiliation. These increasingly individualistic values likely contribute to younger generations’ adoption of a “slower life strategy”. Twenge observes that contemporary early adulthood now involves taking more time for self-exploration in one’s twenties, a pursuit not common in traditional collectivist societies.

Corporations, educational institutions and popular culture reinforce this cultural shift, capitalising on our prolonged adolescence. Take, for instance, the rise of therapy culture and a rapidly expanding trillion-dollar wellness market, which constantly encourage us to spend more money on ourselves, prioritise “me time” and cater to our “inner child”. Our infantilisation is indulged and commodified across various industries, from universities providing students with colouring books, bubbles and Play-Doh to the booming market for childlike activities and products such as “kidult” toys and adult Happy Meals

While we now enjoy more freedoms and opportunities than previous generations, delaying adulthood and focusing on ourselves also come with significant consequences. Women especially face limited choices if they wait too long to have children. But delayed adulthood also comes at a cost for young men, many of whom feel increasingly lost and depressed with modern life. Contemporary culture keeps us all straddling a strange, intermediate state in which we face the pressures of adult life but are encouraged to cling to and prolong our “selfish years” as long as possible. 

Yet with record levels of mental health problems, and a deepening sense of nihilism and disillusionment, perhaps what young people need is a culture that encourages responsibility, personal sacrifice, and commitments that stretch beyond self-indulgence and endless “me time”. Notably, numerous studies show that meeting the needs of others can better fulfil our psychological wellbeing than focusing solely on ourselves. 

Not everyone needs to have children, but younger generations are being failed by a culture that places excessive emphasis on the individual, treats them like perpetual teenagers, and glamorises living in a liminal state of prolonged adolescence. As many of us flail through our twenties and thirties, trying to find meaning in the limitless freedoms and indulgences of modern life, some might one day realise, with regret, that we focused too much time on ourselves. Then, we’ll wonder what we may have missed. 

Freya India is a freelance writer.