Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010
The Good with the Bad
Much of the media attention and public debate on the subject of the changing transition to adulthood start from the assumption that something is wrong with young people today as they take longer to "grow up," that the "fault" is of their own doing. To counter that assumption, we have pointed to some of the large cultural, economic, and demographic forces that have altered the landscape of the early adult years and complicated young people's efforts to leave home, finish school, look for jobs, find partners, and start families.
We would be remiss, however, in not acknowledging that we see some benefits to the way this period of life is being shaken up and to the more varied pathways to adulthood that young people are adopting as a consequence. The rigid three-part model of life (education-work-retirement) through which men born in the first half of the past century marched lockstep, has loosened. So, too, have the family constraints known to those same cohorts of women.57 Educational attainment has expanded dramatically, and a college education is now within reach for many. Many young people now have more time to build their skills and earn credentials, to pursue activities meant for personal growth, to experience multiple jobs, and to experiment in romantic relationships before they settle in.
As we have noted, the story of the changing transition to adulthood is not just one of privileged youth versus underprivileged youth—that is, those who have the luxury to use the early adult years for exploration versus those who have limited opportunities, inadequate personal resources, or fragile family circumstances. It is also a story of the middle class, which is increasingly losing institutional support at precisely the same time as it takes on the heavy burden of supporting young people in the face of dwindling public resources.
Of some things we can be certain. Little about education, work, and family life today comes close to what past generations have known. In some ways life is better, in some ways it is worse, but in most ways it is different. Societies have not yet become fully aware of, or begun fully to address, the ramifications of the longer and more varied transition into adult life. Social institutions, much like young people and their families, are without a clear script for a new era and need to be refashioned to better reflect the times. Finally, for most young people, whether by choice or by circumstance, adulthood no longer begins when adolescence ends.