Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010
Understanding the New Schedule
Concern about the mismatch between the new realities of coming of age and the social institutions that once successfully supported young people moving toward adulthood gave rise, in 1999, to the MacArthur Network on Adult Transitions and Public Policy. The Network, a team of twelve researchers from diverse social science disciplines, began its work by assessing the demographic, economic, sociological, and psychological evidence on adult transitions to learn what had changed and why. In a series of recent publications, the Network has documented that the changes in the timing, sequencing, and even attainment of adult roles have indeed been substantial and that they are affecting young adults in varying socioeconomic circumstances quite differently.2 Drawing on both quantitative and qualitative data in the initial phase of its work, the Network reported that young adults between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four are employing some familiar and some different strategies than those that their parents and grandparents used to make a successful transition to adult work and family roles. In particular, young adults and their families are much more skeptical about the wisdom of early transitions to work and marriage, even taking into account geographical, religious, and socioeconomic differences. The Network also discovered that gender differences in the timing of adult transitions had virtually disappeared.3 By contrast, differences by social class have, if anything, become more pronounced.
These changes coincided with and were reinforced by a wave of immigration during the 1980s that attracted many young adult immigrants as well as immigrant families to the United States. These immigrants have imported traditional family practices while simultaneously demonstrating a high level of adaptation to American ways. First-generation immigrants often arrive as young adults—the peak age period for immigration. Socialized in their sending society, they enter the United States seeking work and are often cut off from their parents and extended family. They achieve independence very young and are more likely to be in the labor force than native-born Americans of the same age and educational background. Second-generation immigrants—native-born children of immigrants—are more likely to live at home as young adults than are comparable natives, and they achieve higher levels of education than natives of similar socioeconomic backgrounds. As a result they have more extended transitions to adulthood than both their parents and comparable native-born Americans.
Network researchers then turned to the challenging task of examining some of the institutions that house and serve young adults—the family, higher education, the workplace, the community, and, for a group of especially vulnerable youth, the juvenile justice, foster care, and related systems. The aim of the second phase of the research program was to assess the ability of each of these institutions to support young adults in their quest for economic independence, intimacy, and civic responsibility—goals widely shared among both young adults and their parents. This volume of The Future of Children provides a summary of research findings to date and suggests policy steps that could make these institutions more effective.