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Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010

What's Going on with Young People Today? The Long and Twisting Path to Adulthood
Richard A. Settersten Barbara Ray

Summary

Richard Settersten and Barbara Ray examine the lengthening transition to adulthood over the past several decades, as well as the challenges the new schedule poses for young people, families, and society.

The authors begin with a brief history of becoming an adult, noting that the schedule that youth follow to arrive at adulthood changes to meet the social realities of each era. For youth to leave home at an early age during the 1950s, for example, was "normal" because opportunities for work were plentiful and social expectations of the time reinforced the need to do so. But the prosperity that made it possible for young adults of that era to move quickly into adult roles did not last. The economic and employment uncertainties that arose during the 1970s complicated enormously the decisions that young adults had to make about living arrangements, educational investments, and family formation.

The authors next take a closer look at changes in the core timing shifts in the new transition—the lengthening time it now takes youth to leave home, complete school, enter the workforce, marry, and have children. They stress that today's new schedule for attaining independence leaves many families overburdened as they support their children for an extended period. The continued need to rely on families for financial assistance, the authors say, exacerbates the plight of young people from a variety of vulnerable backgrounds. It also raises complex questions about who is responsible for the welfare of young people and whether the risks and costs newly associated with the early adult years should be absorbed by markets, by families, or by governments.

Settersten and Ray stress that the longer transition to adulthood strains not only families but also the institutions that have traditionally supported young Americans in making that transition—such as residential colleges and universities, community colleges, military service, and national service programs. They emphasize the need to strengthen existing social institutions and create new ones to reflect more accurately the realities of a longer and more complex passage into adult life.