When my eldest turned 21 last year, her dad presented her with a big wooden oar: "Go paddle your own canoe," he told her.

Easy for him to say. With at least two more years of university ahead of her, she hasn't paddled far.

My youngest once informed me he wouldn't be leaving home till he turned 35. I thought he was joking. Turns out he was just reflecting social change. (Only 18 more years to go.) Coming of age isn't what it used to be. My generation couldn't leave home fast enough. We rushed headlong into adulthood - the job, the marriage, the children, the mortgage, and (all too often) the divorce.

The fact that young people today seem to be taking the slowest road to adulthood ever in the history of humankind (thereby creating a whole new period of life, beyond adolescence but "not quite adult") has been a source of much consternation and hand-wringing, not to mention judgmental theorising.

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Most of it has focused on what's wrong with youth today - which, if we're to believe the narratives scripted by those of us from the older, superior generations, is quite a lot.

Data from the US reveals the extent of the change: fully half of all 18- to 24-year-olds haven't left their childhood bedrooms, let alone landed a job, got married or had kids of their own. That's up 37 per cent from 1970.

Naturally, my generation thinks this means we were made of sterner stuff, as the fortunate always do. Never mind the cheap, if not free, education, the plentiful jobs, the affordable housing, and assorted other advantages.

By comparison, the young of today have been portrayed as a bunch of spoiled slackers, who've been so coddled and indulged by their spineless parents that they effectively refused to grow up.

They had "failed to launch", and the blame, of course, lay entirely with their over-indulgent parents.

Nice theory, but, as always, the truth is a little more complex.

What is becoming abundantly clear is that, far from the easy ride portrayed in the media, this generation is facing unprecedented challenges on the way to adulthood.

Add in the roadblocks thrown up by the recession, and it's obvious that any parent who tries to lecture their kids about how much harder things were in their day should give it a rest.

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For a more accurate portrayal of what's really going on in this generation, the 2010 book Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood, and Why It's Good for Everyone, by Richard Settersten and Barbara Ray, is essential reading.

The result of eight years of research by a group of leading scholars and nearly 500 in-depth interviews with Americans aged 18 to 34, their surprising finding is that the more protracted transition to adulthood is a rational response to what has become a more high-stakes, winner-take-all world in which "poor judgments and small mistakes on the road to adulthood are all substantially more perilous than they were just a decade ago".

The authors say that expecting young people to be "adult" by 18 or 21, or even 25, "is no longer feasible, or even desirable".

Indeed, "The headlong rush into adulthood no longer makes sense and can put kids at risk".

Amid rich insights into the choices made by young people, researchers identified a "little-remarked but alarming trend": the "sharply diverging destinies" of what they called "swimmers" and "treaders".

"One group of young adults is taking their time launching into adulthood, but doing so in a careful and calculated way. They are gaining a good education, getting the building blocks in place for a successful career, and putting off marriage and children until they get their lives in order. They may be doing a leisurely backstroke, but they are headed in the right direction.

"A second and much larger group is in a more worrisome position. This group of young adults is treading water instead of swimming because they have embraced the responsibilities of adulthood too quickly, without being adequately prepared for today's competitive world. These treaders often skip or struggle with the most crucial step in the transition to adulthood: education."

Treaders' families often lack the resources and knowledge to provide the same support and guidance that swimmers get, and they're more inclined to push their kids out of the nest before they're ready, in the misguided belief that such independence is good for them.

Unfortunately, going it alone no longer cuts it in today's "highly competitive, highly interconnected, increasingly unequal" world.

And with little to no family support and fewer government supports, the "stuttering" attempts of treaders at higher education takes much longer than normal, or ends in failure.

Given treaders make up two-thirds of the next generation of workers, parents and taxpayers, everyone ends up paying for that failure.

As Settersten and Ray argue, "the fates of this large group of young adults do matter to everyone.

"One of the obvious examples of this is retirement. If young adults cannot get started on a path to solid earnings by their 30s, the prospects for their lifetime earnings narrow considerably, which, in turn means less money in the tax coffers for the baby boomers' retirement years."

Tapu Misa@gmail.com