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Is Acting Like a Grown-Up Overrated?

30 going on 10: Adults these days are choosing coloring books and superheroes over mortgages and marriage licenses.

Yalonda Green—who has a PhD in humanities, cultural studies, and poetry—first stumbled upon her adult love of coloring while working as a children’s library assistant at the Louisville Free Public Library in Kentucky. “When the kids were doing the coloring pages, I would sit and do them too. I noticed that when I colored with them, I felt relaxed and at peace. Eventually, I went to the dollar store, bought some colored pencils and coloring books. I started coloring at home and sharing my coloring on Facebook,” says Green.

Green didn’t stop her sharing there. These days, she offers pages from coloring books along with colored pencils to adult library visitors as a form of stress relief. “We have a large unemployed population in this community. Often times, people come here stressed out and worried. At least a few times a week, I have to remind someone to breathe,” she says. The soothing activity has proven to be so popular that Green is launching a library program this August focused on sketching, drawing, and coloring, aimed at encouraging fellow grown-ups to express creativity and confidence in their choices, whether on the page or in other more traditionally “adult” aspects of their lives, like job interviews or romantic relationships.

The Detroit native and the adults she works with are especially fond of the mandalas featured in the works of illustrator Johanna Basford, whose adult-oriented Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book topped Amazon’s bestsellers list last month. Her second coloring book for grown-ups, Enchanted Forest: An Inky Quest and Coloring Book, was No. 2—selling out of its first run of 226,000 copies in just a few weeks. Between just those two books, Basford’s coloring books for grown-ups have sold nearly 1.7 million copies worldwide. And they’re far from the only adult coloring books to appear in the top 10.

One of Johanna Basford's mandalas, waiting to be colored in. Image via YouTube screenshot.

So what’s with the regressive behavior? There’s a lot of speculation out there about adults like Green who are between the ages of 25 and 34. She and her millennial cohorts are better educated than previous generations—which has left many of them with “astronomical” student loan debt. 49 percent of 2014 graduates describe themselves as underemployed, which means they’re without a job, or at least without a job requiring their bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate degrees. Underemployment might be why 15 percent of millennials currently live with their parents. Or maybe they’re moving back home because 68 percent of them have never married, compared to 32 percent of their grandparents at the same age.

Psychologists (and parents forced to forget, at least temporarily, about the challenges and pleasures of the empty nest) have referred to this recent tendency toward extended adolescence as a new stage of life: emerging adulthood. But maybe emerging adulthood isn’t something that’s been thrust upon today’s young adults. Instead, our newest grown-ups are making deliberate choices. According to Pew, 24 percent of millennials may not be married, but they’re co-habitating with a romantic partner. When it comes to jobs, emerging adults are forging their own path—the Freelancers Union notes that since 2007, they’ve seen a 3,000 percent increase in members under 35, shedding traditional office life for the riskier—though potentially more rewarding, in terms of both work-life balance and dollars earned—terrain of freelance. And according to a recent study from Bentley University, 67 percent of millennials would like to strike out on their own as entrepreneurs. (Even baby boomers are eschewing the typically adult 9-to-5 office job—58 percent say they value flexible work arrangements, says research from PwC.)

Those adults who enter full-time office life are doing so in increasingly casual, childlike circumstances, whether that means areas dedicated to childhood board games, pool, and pinball or playful activities like corporate rock climbing outings. That’s a smart move, according to research out of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics which suggests that the mere presence of soft toys like teddy bears, or the ability to watch cartoons on the job, is good for corporate ethics—reducing cheating-like behaviors by 20 percent. The researchers call this boost in morality the “return to innocence” effect.

So maybe it’s not exactly the end of the world when adults choose to spend $1 billion worldwide on superhero movies like Avengers: Age of Ultron (or get tattoos of Disney cartoons). The constantly evolving (devolving?) definition of adulthood might just be turning us into kinder people overall. In 2013, the Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood found that today’s young adults were shown to be "less selfish and impulsive in their attitudes and behavior." And millennials, for all their economic woes, are incredibly civically engaged, with more than half of them volunteering regularly. Crayon, anyone?

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