New research says that young people feel pretty good about having debt. In fact, for young young adults—ages 18 to 27—debt enhances self-esteem. And that includes both college loans and credit card debt.

Behavioral economics is a burgeoning field, and research into our relationship with dept is pretty new, and particularly relevant in our debt-burdened age. And this debt lovefest seems to be a new phenomenon.

Kids’ romance with debt is tough for me to wrap my mind around. I didn’t get my first credit card until I was about 25 years old, and I paid that off every month. Except for a mortgage (acquired when I was in my 40s) and college loans (ditto), I didn’t carry a balance on anything until fairly recently. My husband and I have debt now, but mostly because the crap economy has given our businesses a thorough thrashing. We didn’t overextend ourselves, but like a lot of Americans these days, we’re struggling to maintain our modest lifestyle.

Our “pay as you go” approach is evidently rather quaint—and we didn’t even live through the Depression.  According to this new research (original article here), young people take on debt gleefully and even with pride.

The researchers speculate that the boost to self-esteem comes from what the debt buys, be it a college education through loans, or the clothes, gadgets, restaurant meals and all the rest that credit cards can buy.

No doubt that’s part of it. But the researchers also say that,

In taking on debt young people feel they are acting as informed and considered agents in control of their own lives and decisions.

I wonder if this is not as much, or even more, to the point: Debt makes kids feel grown up. Debt has been normalized, kids see that everyone is in debt these days: their parents, their friends, their country. We are expected to take on debt, even urged to do so, so that we have good credit to take on more debt. It seems that the only people who are not in debt are young children whose parents are in debt to give them everything their little hearts desire.

The cognitive dissonance of our youth-obsessed culture is that the “youth” we are obsessed with is actually fairly narrowly defined: old enough to have sex and debt, but not so old that we take those things seriously. We seem to have designated shortcuts to feeling grown up: slutwear, cell phones, oral sex, debt.

What were the moments in life that first made you feel grown up? Two stand out in my mind: Buying our first washer and drier, and buying our first new sofa. Silly, but true. Though I often long to be young and unburdened again, I have no desire to ever set foot in another Laundromat if I can help it. And until we bought that new sofa (now the old sofa on which I sit writing this), we had only ever had hand-me-downs. We did not take on debt for either of these purchases.

Debt doesn’t make me feel grown-up. Mostly it makes me tired. It makes feel like I’ve done a bad job managing my money and that I should be old enough to know better. I can’t wait to get everything paid off so I can feel OK about spending again. In today’s climate, this attitude seems positively fuddy-duddy.

I wonder how our society came to this place, where kids want to grow up fast and adults don’t want to grow up at all. How is it we have six-year-old girls dressing like they’re 25 and 40-year-old men dressing like they’re six? Kids taking on debt to feel grown up and adults taking on debt as if they aren’t. We seem to be all mixed up about what it means to be an adult, and not sure if growing up is a good thing or not.

When they hit about 28 years old, the reality of debt starts sinking in for young people and they become less enamored of the whole business. At this point, I imagine, they start wishing they had done things differently and been a little more adult about managing their money.

More adult, that is, if adults didn’t act like children about debt.

Photo by Dinkel via Flickr (Creative Commons).