Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010
Becoming an Adult: A Brief History
During the first few decades of the twentieth century, the period known as "adolescence" was relatively brief. By their late teens, only a small fraction of the population was still in school, and most men had begun to work. While many left their natal homes early, surprisingly high shares of men and women nonetheless remained at home for a while, as we will later see, and marriage and childbearing did not happen immediately. As the century progressed, however, growing proportions of young people had formed families by their late teens or early twenties. The Great Depression slowed the timing of family formation, but by the end of World War II, marriage and childbearing took place almost in lockstep with the conclusion of schooling. In the postwar boom that followed, high-paying industrial jobs were plentiful, and a prosperous economy enabled workers with high school degrees (or less) and college degrees alike to find secure employment with decent wages and benefits. Between 1949 and 1970, the income of earners in the lower and middle brackets grew 110 percent or more, while the income of those in the top brackets rose between 85 percent and 95 percent.4
These stable jobs made it possible for couples to marry and form families at young ages. By the 1950s and 1960s, most Americans viewed family roles and adult responsibilities as being nearly synonymous. For men, the defining characteristic of adulthood was having the means to marry and support a family. For women, it was getting married and becoming a mother; indeed, most women in that era married before they were twenty-one and had at least one child before they were twenty-three. By their early twenties, then, most young men and women were recognized as adults, both socially and economically.
In some ways, adult transitions today resemble those before industrialization, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when the livelihoods of most families were bound to farms and agricultural jobs rather than the job market. Becoming an adult then, as now, was a gradual process characterized by "semi-autonomy," with youth waiting until they were economically self-sufficient to set up independent households, marry, and have children. There are important differences, however, in the ways young people today and in the recent and more distant past define and achieve adulthood.
How do Americans today define adulthood? To seek an answer, the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood developed a set of questions for the 2002 General Social Survey (GSS), an opinion poll administered to a nationally representative sample of Americans every two years by the National Opinion Research Center.5 The survey asked nearly 1,400 Americans aged eighteen and older how important it was to reach certain traditional markers to be considered an adult: leaving home, finishing school, getting a full-time job, becoming financially independent from one's parents, being able to support a family, marrying, and becoming a parent.
Today, more than 95 percent of Americans consider the most important markers of adulthood to be completing school, establishing an independent household, and being employed full-time—concrete steps associated with the ability to support a family. But only about half of Americans consider it necessary to marry or to have children to be regarded as an adult. Unlike their parents' and grandparents' generations, for whom marriage and parenthood were prerequisites for adulthood, young people today more often view these markers as life choices rather than requirements, as steps that complete the process of becoming an adult rather than start it.
Definitions of adulthood also differ markedly by social class. For example, Americans who are less educated and less affluent give earlier deadlines for leaving home, completing school, obtaining full-time employment, marrying, and parenting. Around 40 percent of those in the bottom third of the economic distribution said that young adults should marry before they turn twenty-five, and one-third said they should have children by this age. Far fewer of the better-off respondents pointed to the early twenties, and about one-third of them said that these events could be delayed until the thirties.
Some important new realities underlie these definitions. First, becoming an adult today usually involves a period of living independently before marriage, even though growing shares of young people are staying at home longer or returning home later on. Second, the early adult years often involve the pursuit of higher education, as a decent standard of living today generally requires a college education, if not a professional degree. Third, regardless of whether young people enter college, it takes longer today to secure a full-time job that pays enough to support a family, and young people now have a greater range of employment experiences in getting there. Fourth, as a consequence of these changes, marriage and parenting now come significantly later in the life course. Finally, on each of these fronts, young adults often have starkly different sets of options and experiences depending on their family backgrounds and resources. Young adults today are also more likely to be black, Hispanic, immigrant, and multi-ethnic than any other of the nation's age groups.6 They are also more likely to be foreign-born, a characteristic that in past generations was truer of families' oldest members. These shifts, too, have prompted new inequalities in early adult life.
The post-World War II script for life left such an indelible mark that it often remains the benchmark against which individuals judge themselves and others, even today. Yet the postwar model was something of an aberration then as now. Families of the 1950s and 1960s did many things differently from their predecessors, including launching themselves into adulthood at very early ages. This is apparent in figures 1 and 2, which show the proportion of men and women (single and without children) living with their parents at the ages of twenty, twenty-five, and thirty from 1900 to 2000, and table 1, which adds a recent data point, 2007.
In 1900, roughly one-third of white men aged twenty-five were living at home with their parents—two and a half times the share in 1970.7 By 2000, the share living at home was one-fifth; by 2007, it had increased to one-fourth. Since the 1970s, black men have lived more often with parents than their white peers at both ages twenty-five and thirty. Figures 1 and 2 show that during this period women have tended to leave home earlier than men, and, as we show later, cohabit or marry earlier as well.
It might be tempting to infer from these figures that Americans have now returned to a more "normal" pattern of delayed home-leaving. That inference, however, would miss the important and often unique conditions that every historical era presents. To leave home quickly in the 1950s was "normal" because opportunities were plentiful and social expectations of the time reinforced the need to do so. At the turn of both the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, greater proportions of young people stayed at home longer than those who came of age at mid-century because they faced distinctive social and economic conditions of their own.
Carrying the picture forward to 2007, table 1 shows the proportion of black and white young adults, at different ages, who live with their parents. The trends in co-residence with parents evidenced in figures 1 and 2 have made dramatic leaps.8 In every age bracket men are more likely than women to live with parents. Black men live with parents more often than white men, and more often than white and black women, at every age. Black women more often live with parents than do white women, again at every age. The share living with parents is particularly high for men and women in their early twenties, spanning 43 to 50 percent depending on the group, although proportions fall as the age rises. At each five-year mark—from age twenty, to twenty-five, to thirty—percentages are cut in half. Yet even at the ages of thirty-five and forty, between 4 and 12 percent of adult children live with their parents, depending on the group.
Comparisons between native-born whites and blacks overlook the very sizable group of young people from other ethnic and immigrant populations who live at home. In 2008, among young men and women aged eighteen to twenty-four across ten distinct immigrant groups, second-generation youth (those born in the United States to foreign-born parents) are consistently more likely to be living at home than first-generation or so-called 1.5-generation youth (those who arrived at age thirteen or older, or age twelve or younger, respectively).9 Immigrants of the second generation are more likely to live at home than native-born blacks and especially whites, and some groups show very high rates of home-staying (for example, between 64 and 75 percent of young adults from Indian, Dominican, Chinese, Filipino, and Salvadoran/Guatemalan backgrounds live at home).
Although residential independence has been and continues to be one of the markers of attaining adulthood in the United States, particularly among native-born youth, recent downturns in the economy may create pressure on families to house adult children. Growing numbers of young people have also been staying at home while enrolled in school or to make ends meet while working.10
For women, it was not until the 1960s that large numbers began to live on their own before marriage, thus creating a critical "hiatus" (as sociologist Frances Goldscheider has called it) that allowed women to become more fully integrated into the paid labor market and college classrooms.11 By 1970, the share of twenty-year-olds who were living on their own before marrying was more than double that for both white men and women at the turn of the century.12 As we show later, marriage was becoming less urgent and desirable for a host of reasons, and when young people did not marry, they still considered moving out and living on their own—and women en masse did so for the first time. During this era, housing was also inexpensive, and staying with parents humiliating.
Figures 3 through 6 demonstrate how much has changed in just a generation or so. These snapshots show that in 1970, only 13 percent of white males were living with their parents at age twenty-five, compared with 19 percent in 2000. Only about 10 percent were living on their own or with roommates in 1970, compared with one-third in 2000. Most profoundly, nearly seven in ten were married in 1970, compared with only one-third by 2000. The trend, then, has been for men to move out of their parents' homes, but not into marriages or even cohabitation; by contrast, the proportion living with parents has grown only modestly. Trends are similar for women and for those of other racial and ethnic groups at age twenty-five. Half as many black men, for example, were living at home with parents in 1970 as in 2000. Likewise, the share married at age twenty-five in 1970 was triple that in 2000.
It is clear that the emergence of a period of independent living—despite more recent social concerns about young people staying at home longer or returning home later—is one of the most profound changes in the experiences of young adults in the past several decades.13 This significant shift coincides with a few other major transformations in the early adult years, including the rising demand for, and attainment of, advanced education, to which we now turn.
The Rising Demand for Education
Higher education has flourished in all post-industrial and emerging post-industrial societies. Once reserved for the elite, a college education is now a necessity for both men and women who want access to good jobs. Education and training are more valuable than ever because jobs are less secure and work careers have become more fluid. The demand for education and training has increased relentlessly over the past four decades, and the economic returns to education have grown in recent years, even after the higher costs of getting an education are taken into account.14
Young adults have heard the message loud and clear: to get ahead, one needs a college degree. And, in fact, today's young adults are better educated than any previous generation in the nation's history. Yet many youth are also floundering badly. Approximately eight in ten high school seniors plan to attend some form of college or training after high school.15 But even high school dropout rates are high: among people sixteen to twenty-four years old in 2006, high school dropout rates were 9.3 percent overall and 5.8 percent, 10.7 percent, and 22.1 percent for whites, blacks, and Hispanics, respectively.16 More disturbing estimates suggest that as many as three in ten ninth graders today will not graduate from high school four years later; for Hispanics, blacks, and Native Americans, the figures hover around a disturbing five in ten.17
"College for all" may be a salient cultural message, but only one-quarter of young adults between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four have a bachelor's degree today, and only 5 percent have graduate degrees.18 Popular perceptions to the contrary, these shares have not changed significantly in the past three decades. The breakdown of degree holders has changed, however, by gender and by race and ethnicity. Women have now surpassed men in college graduation rates and in educational attainment generally.19 Asians are most likely to have bachelor's degrees or higher, followed by whites. Hispanics are least likely. Only 9 percent of Hispanics between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four had a bachelor's degree in 2005. Asians are four times more likely than Hispanics to have a bachelor's degree.20 Among whites, the share with a bachelor's degree is 27 percent; among blacks, the share is 15 percent.21
It is telling that only 40 percent of those who enter four-year institutions earn degrees within six years—and the rest are unlikely ever to earn degrees, as six years is generally understood to be the point of no return.22 The children of parents who have themselves graduated from college are far more likely to have both the skills and the resources to enter and complete college. Although six in ten students whose parents have college degrees finish college in four years, only about one in ten students whose parents lack college degrees finishes in four years.23
The gap between young adults' high aspirations for college and their low graduation rates sounds an important alarm. Youth who are ill-prepared for the rigors of higher education may start school, but they are also more likely to have unclear plans and inadequate skills, veer off course, cycle in and out, or drop out altogether.24 The growth of the "nontraditional" student (one who is older, working, or parenting) is also a key reason why it now takes longer to get a "four-year" degree.25 Youth who have dropped out of four-year colleges or who are not seeking four-year degrees often find their way to community colleges. In his article in this volume, Thomas Brock explores the formidable challenges these students and these institutions now face.
More worrisome is the plight of young adults who have no education beyond high school and who are largely disengaged from social institutions and economic life—schools, the labor market, and the military. In 2005, even before the current recession and during the height of the Iraq war, roughly three in ten white men between ages sixteen and twenty-four with only a high school degree were not in school, in the military, or at work.26 For young black men, the proportion is staggering: more than half were not in school, in the military, or at work.
Of even more concern is the high probability that poorly educated men, particularly black men, will be imprisoned in early adulthood. Economist Steven Raphael estimates that 90 percent of black male high school dropouts in California aged forty-five to fifty-four have histories of imprisonment.27 Other studies using national data have found similar, but lower, probabilities of imprisonment.28 The most conservative estimates, from the U.S. Department of Justice, though nonetheless startling, are that about one in three black men and one in six Latino men are expected to go to prison during their lifetime—compared with one in seventeen white men—if current incarceration rates remain unchanged.29 Among all American men in their twenties in 2008, 1.5 percent of whites, 4 percent of Latinos, and fully 10 percent of blacks were incarcerated.30 These are very high rates of incarceration for all groups, but far higher for blacks than for others. These data highlight just how difficult the adult experiences and circumstances of black and Latino men are, particularly for those with the least education, for whom risks grow in the late adolescent and early adult years.
Getting Ahead Gets Harder
The prosperity that made it possible for young adults to move quickly into adult roles continued for several decades after World War II. During the 1970s, however, wages stagnated and inflation rose. The manufacturing sector that had been the backbone of the middle class and had ensured lives of relative security for the working class crumbled. For the next thirty years, wages for workers without college degrees stagnated, and the pensions and benefits that they had once enjoyed began to vanish. Globalization increased competition, markets became internationalized, and new technologies spread networks and knowledge.31 All these forces gave rise to new economic and employment uncertainties that now complicate young adults' decisions about living arrangements, educational investments, and family formation.
At mid-century a high school degree was enough to establish a solid standard of living; today not even a college degree guarantees success. As shown in figure 7, young men (aged twenty-five to thirty-four) with a high school degree or less earned about $4,000 less in 2002 than in 1975 (with earnings adjusted for inflation).32 Men with some college also lost ground, earning about $3,500 a year less in 2002 than in 1975. College graduates made gains, but the big winners were men who had completed at least some graduate school, whose earnings grew by about $19,000.33 And even small gains, of course, have significant effects on lifetime earnings.
Over the past quarter-century, the earnings of women, unlike those of men, have risen (see figure 8). Figures 7 and 8 indicate that women's earnings have grown faster than those of men—although men have continued to outearn women. In part because women's wages were much lower to start, their average earnings have remained well below those of men. In 1975, a female high school graduate earned about 46 percent as much during the year as a male; by 2002, she earned 62 percent as much. As with men, the most educated women saw the largest earnings gains. Finally, for each group (except those with some graduate-level education), the share whose earnings were below poverty levels (about $19,000 for a family of four in 2002) was greater in 2002 than in 1975.
Having an income—or at least the ability to earn an income—has always been a precursor to being independent and taking on adult roles, such as marrying and settling down. In 1969, only about 10 percent of men in their early thirties had wages that were below poverty level. By 2004, the share had more than doubled. Women fared a little better over the same time span, but nearly half were still earning poverty-level wages by their mid-thirties.34 Overall, the share of young adults in 2005 living in poverty was higher than the national average.35 Given these and a host of other new economic vulnerabilities, it is perhaps not so surprising that by age thirty, only half as many young adults in 2005 as in 1960 had achieved all the traditional markers of adulthood—particularly marriage and parenthood.36
Delaying "I Do"
Young adults today take a different view of marriage than their counterparts did in times past.37 Whereas once couples came together to build a life together, today couples build their own lives separately and then marry. Because acquiring educational credentials and work experience—a key part of the foundation to be built before marriage—takes time, it is no surprise that young adults are delaying marriage. Between 1960 and 1980, the median age at first marriage for young people rose from twenty to twenty-three; by 2000 it had reached twenty-five.38 Today, median age at first marriage for men is over twenty-seven, and for women, twenty-six.39 These are extraordinary leaps.
Young adults, however, are hardly celibate while they build that foundation. Advances in contraception and reproduction rights have left women and couples with greater control over fertility and fewer risks associated with premarital sex. Views on the acceptability of living together before marriage have also become more positive. Fifty years ago, very few couples lived together before marrying; today, more than half of first marriages are preceded by cohabitation, a trend that shows no signs of abating.40 About half of high school seniors say that they plan to cohabit as couples before they marry.41
For young adults with fewer prospects ahead of them—those with the least education and lowest incomes—children often come before marriage. Nearly 40 percent of all first births occur before marriage, and the vast majority of these premarital births are to young adults who have not attended, much less completed, college.42 The risk of divorce is also consistently highest for couples who marry earliest. Sixty percent of those who marry before age eighteen will be divorced by age thirty-four. Forty percent of those who marry by age twenty will not make it to their tenth wedding anniversary, compared with roughly 25 percent of those who wait until twenty-five.43
For those who bemoan the demise of marriage, there is heartening news. Young adults may be postponing marriage, but they are not abandoning it altogether. By age thirty-four, seven in ten have tied the knot.44 At the same time, the proportions of young people who are single and have never married, by age and race, are striking, as shown in table 2.
In 2007, men in every age bracket through age thirty-four were more likely to be single and never-married than women. Black men and black women were consistently more likely to be single and never-married than whites, with Hispanic men and women falling in between. As the table shows, the proportions of single and never-married people drop by age for all groups, although less dramatically for black men and women than for whites. In their early thirties, more than half of black men and women are single and never-married. Even later, at age forty, sizable proportions of men and women, and especially black men and women, are still single and never-married. The percentages of people who have never married, and who are intentionally childless, are higher now than at any other time in American history—and policy makers have not yet begun to anticipate the future social ramifications of this profound fact.45
The Crucial Role of Families and Social Relationships
Both the government and the general public in the United States place a high premium on personal responsibility and self-reliance.46 The prevailing "sink or swim" philosophy leaves it up to young people and their families to take advantage of the opportunities they encounter or actively create, and to shoulder responsibility for problems that ensue as they navigate markets for education, jobs, and partners using their own knowledge and resources.
Stark inequalities therefore exist in the skills, resources, and opportunities of young people, depending on what parents can provide during their children's third decade and what they provided in the first two decades. To understand these inequalities, one need only look at the financial supports that parents provide to their young adult children. U.S. data from 1988—seemingly outdated but the best available over a long time span—showed that parents spent about one-third of the total cost of raising a child from birth to age eighteen again between eighteen and thirty-four. This support included the provision of material assistance (in the form of housing, food, and educational expenses) and direct cash assistance, although support diminished as adult children grew older.47 Even more striking, children from families in the top quarter of the income distribution received at least 70 percent more in material assistance than children in the bottom quarter.
One can safely assume that these outlays have only increased dramatically since those data were collected in 1988. A 2005 update of that study, based on parents of youth aged eighteen to twenty-one, shows that, regardless of income, parents are spending 10 percent of their annual incomes to help their young adult children. All families are thus devoting similar proportions of their resources to their young adult children, although the amounts they spend are obviously drastically different (10 percent of $40,000 is considerably different from 10 percent of $200,000). The higher transfers in financially well-positioned families give a further boost to children who are already better off going into adulthood.
This expensive new stage of life is creating some consternation for families that have to adjust to the changing pace of adult transitions. For the most privileged young adults—those who receive ample support from their parents—the new, extended path to adulthood is a time of unparalleled freedom: freedom to proceed directly through college, travel or work for a few years, or perhaps participate in community service, and then enter graduate or professional school. Relatively few Americans, however, have this good fortune. Youth from less well-off families shuttle back and forth between work and school or combine both while they gradually gain their credentials; they wait for jobs that can support the families they wish to start or perhaps have already started; and they feel little control over their lives.
More than at any time in recent history, then, parents are being called on to provide material and other types of assistance to their young adult children. A century ago, it was the other way around: young adults typically helped their parents when they first went to work, particularly if they still lived together. Now, many young adults continue to receive support from their parents even after they begin working. The exceptions seem to be in immigrant families, where young adult children stay in the parental home and feel strong obligations to help support parents.48
The challenges of a longer transition to adulthood pose chronic dilemmas for families with limited means that must find ways to support their children, especially in a course of extended education. Of course, it has always been true that some youth do well and others do not, regardless of resources. Having resources is no guarantee of success, just as the absence of resources is no guarantee of failure. But having additional resources would surely seem to foster positive outcomes in early adulthood. Resources may also soften the consequences of poor judgments and mistakes, which seem more perilous today as the safety nets on which post-World War II generations could rely—pensions and health insurance, steady work with benefits, company loyalty—are fraying.
The weakened position of families in the current volatile economy exacerbates the challenges to populations of young people who are already vulnerable going into adulthood—those whose skills and resources are less than adequate, whose family relationships are absent or fragile, or who have long been in foster care, special education, or juvenile justice systems only to be abruptly cut off from support when they reach the legal ages of adulthood, eighteen or in some cases twenty-one.49 Most supports for these youth now end at age eighteen—a time when, as noted, their more advantaged peers are continuing to receive sizable assistance from their families of origin. For these populations, maintaining supports is an important priority, even—or especially—in times of economic hardship.
Even middle-class families that once seemed strongly positioned to invest in young adult children may now be experiencing new vulnerabilities amid the "Great Recession" that began in 2008. As the middle class shrinks and family incomes fluctuate from year to year in an uncertain economy, families cannot offer the same set of resources to their children.50 Families on the low end of middle-income seem especially vulnerable—they have some, but not ample, resources, and their incomes are just high enough to make them ineligible for government support.
Young people who can build stronger and wider connections to adults other than parents (for example, teachers and adult mentors) also end up faring better than those who do not. Especially for those young people with limited or absent relationships with their parents, relationships with other adults are invaluable in replacing or compensating for the support that their parents cannot or do not provide. The presence of meaningful relationships with adults significantly bolsters school achievement, success in jobs, emotional maturity, and satisfaction with life, and keeps in check problematic behaviors such as substance abuse.51 Relationships with adults other than parents are also important in opening opportunities and resources by connecting young people to the larger and loosely connected social networks in which these adults are embedded.52
In the United States, the solutions for managing this extended transition are, to a great degree, private ones, made possible by whatever social connections or resources young people and their parents happen to have or can create. But the transition takes place within multiple institutional contexts, and the investments that society makes in the institutions around young people and their parents are also important. These supports are particularly important for families that are unable to extend help because of limited resources or because they lack the knowledge and skills to help their children move forward.