Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010
Becoming an adult has traditionally been understood as comprising five core transitions—leaving home, completing school, entering the workforce, getting married, and having children. Recent research on how young adults are handling these core transitions has yielded three important findings that contributors to this volume will explore in the pages to come. First, both in the United States and in many European countries, the process of becoming an adult is more gradual and varied today than it was half a century ago.1 Social timetables that were widely observed in that era no longer seem relevant, and young people are taking longer to achieve economic and psychological autonomy than their counterparts did then. Experiences in early adulthood now also vary greatly by gender, race and ethnicity, and social class.
Second, families are often overburdened in extending support to young adult children as they make their way through this extended process. In the United States, in particular, parents contribute sizable material and emotional support through their children's late twenties and into their early thirties. Such flows are to be expected in more privileged families, but what is now striking are the significant flows—and associated strains—in middle-class families at a time when families themselves have become increasingly stressed or fractured. The heavier reliance on families exacerbates the already precarious plight of young people from a variety of vulnerable backgrounds.2 It also raises complex questions about who is responsible for the welfare of young people and whether markets, families, or governments should absorb the risks and costs associated with the early adult years.
Third, there is a mismatch between young people making the transition to adulthood today and the existing institutional supports, including residential colleges and universities, community colleges, military and national service programs, work settings, and other environments. The policies, programs, and institutions that served young adults a half-century ago no longer meet the needs of youth today, either in the United States or Europe, and are based on assumptions that do not reflect the realities of the world today.3
Together, these three findings point to the need to strengthen the skills and capacities of young people on the path to adulthood and to improve the effectiveness of the institutions through which they move. Although some of the broad changes we describe are taking place in Canada and some Western European nations, as well as in the United States, the factors that explain them, the consequences of and responses to them, and the national histories in which they are embedded are often unique. For these reasons, we focus most of our attention on the story at home, in the United States. Because our aim is to provide an overview of changes and challenges in the contour and content of the early adult years, we focus on the larger story at the expense of more nuanced ones, which are told in the topic-focused articles that follow. We begin with a brief history of becoming an adult in the United States. We then take a closer look at a few particularly important shifts—in leaving the family home, in completing schooling, in securing work, in marriage and childbearing, and in the provision of family support. We close by illustrating the need to buttress or reform social institutions in light of a longer and more complex passage to adulthood.