Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010
Frank Furstenberg examines how the newly extended timetable for entering adulthood is affecting, and being affected by, the institution of the Western, particularly the American, family. He reviews a growing body of research on the family life of young adults and their parents and draws out important policy implications of the new schedule for the passage to adulthood.
Today, says Furstenberg, home-leaving, marriage, and the onset of childbearing take place much later in the life span than they did during the period after World War II. After the disappearance of America's well-paying unskilled and semi-skilled manufacturing jobs during the 1960s, youth from all economic strata began remaining in school longer and marrying and starting their own families later. Increasing numbers of lower-income women did not marry at all but chose, instead, non-marital parenthood—often turning to their natal families for economic and social support, rather than to their partners. As the period of young adults' dependence on their families grew longer, the financial and emotional burden of parenthood grew heavier. Today, regardless of their income level, U.S. parents provide roughly the same proportion of their earnings to support their young adult children.
Unlike many nations in Europe, the United States, with its relatively underdeveloped welfare system, does not invest heavily in education, health care, and job benefits for young adults. It relies, instead, on families' investments in their own adult children. But as the transition to adulthood becomes more protracted, the increasing family burden may prove costly to society as a whole. Young adults themselves may begin to regard childbearing as more onerous and less rewarding. The need to provide greater support for children for longer periods may discourage couples from having additional children or having children at all. Such decisions could lead to lower total fertility, ultimately reduce the workforce, and further aggravate the problem of providing both for increasing numbers of the elderly and for the young. U.S. policy makers must realize the importance of reinforcing the family nest and helping reduce the large and competing demands that are being placed on today's parents.