Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010
That the schedule for coming of age has been rather sharply revised both in the United States and more broadly throughout the industrialized world is by now widely recognized. Over the past decade, especially, the mass media have trumpeted the findings of a growing body of research showing that young people are taking longer to leave home, attain economic independence, and form families of their own than did their peers half a century ago. The forces behind this new timetable have been evident for several decades, but social science researchers, much less policy makers, were slow to recognize just how profound the change has been. A trickle of studies during the 1980s about the prolongation of young adulthood grew to a steady stream during the 1990s and then to a torrent during the first decade of the new millennium.1 Now that researchers have shown how and why the timetable for becoming an adult has altered, policy makers must rethink whether the social institutions that once successfully educated, trained, and supported young adults are up to the task today.
Changes in the coming-of-age schedule are, in fact, nothing new. A century or more ago, the transition to adulthood was also a protracted affair. In an agriculture-based economy, it took many young adults some time to gain the wherewithal to leave home and form a family. Formal education was typically brief because most jobs were still related to farming, the trades, or the growing manufacturing sector. By their teens, most youth were gainfully employed, but they frequently remained at home for a time, contributing income to their families and building resources to enter marriage and form a family.
By contrast, after World War II, with opportunities for good jobs abundant, young Americans transitioned to adult roles quickly. In 1950, fewer than half of all Americans completed high school, much less attended college. Well-paying, often unionized jobs with benefits were widely available to males. The marriage rush and baby boom era at mid-century was stimulated not only by a longing to settle down after the war years but also by generous new government programs to help integrate veterans back into society.
Today young adults take far longer to reach economic and social maturity than their contemporaries did five or six decades ago. In large part, this shift is attributable to the expansion of higher education beginning in the late 1960s. Employers have become increasingly reluctant to hire young people without educational credentials. Failing to complete high school all but relegates individuals to a life of permanent penury; even completing high school is hardly enough to ensure reasonable prospects. Like it or not, at least some postsecondary education is increasingly necessary. In short, education has become an ever more potent source of social stratification, dividing the haves and the have-nots, a theme in this volume to which we will return.
The boom in higher education is not the only reason why young adults are taking more time to gain independence from their families and establish themselves in adult roles. The schedule for growing up, no doubt, has been affected by the lengthening of the life span over the past century. Most young adults today can expect to live into their late seventies, a decade longer than their counterparts even fifty years ago. It makes sense to continue investing into the third and even fourth decades of life when one can expect to live another fifty years or more.
Cultural changes, such as the post-1960s shift in sexual attitudes and practices, have also slowed what was once a rush into adult roles. Fifty years ago, premarital sex was still highly stigmatized. Although the stigma did not deter many young couples from breaching the norms, marriage served as a safety net in the event of a premarital pregnancy. Today, most young people expect to have sex before marriage and have the means to prevent unwanted childbearing. Their contraceptive efforts are still imperfect, but the point is that they need not marry to have sex, and they will not necessarily become pregnant when they do.
The past several decades, then, have witnessed a big change in how and when youth take on adult roles—to put it another way, another notable shift in the "normal" pattern of moving from adolescence to adulthood. Although today’s delayed schedule is reminiscent of the pattern a century ago, however, the two are fundamentally different. Today, young people (unless they are the children of recent immigrants) rarely contribute earnings to the household; by and large, they are either fully or partially beholden to their parents for support while they complete their schooling and find a foothold in the labor force. Typically, they defer marriage in favor of cohabitation even when they do leave the natal household.
Although today’s young adults and their parents value independence highly, both tolerate and even endorse a slower schedule for attaining economic and social maturity. In effect, what is becoming normal, if not normative, is that the age of eighteen, or even twenty-one, has lost its significance as a marker of adult status. The transition to adulthood is drawn out over a span of nearly a decade and consists of a series of smaller steps rather than a single swift and coordinated one. Moreover, the social construction of adulthood seems to rely much less on the traditional demographic markers—home leaving, full-time work, and family formation—and more on personal psychological self-assessments of "maturity." At any rate, the traditional markers do not any longer stand for attaining adulthood.
Many observers, especially in the mass media, worry that this new timetable for adulthood has created a growing sense of entitlement and a lingering pattern of dependency. Much of the evidence, however, points to a different conclusion: attaining adult roles (as measured by independence from the natal family, union formation, and parenthood) is simply more difficult than it was, especially three or four decades ago. In fact, the vast majority of young adults in their late teens and early twenties are not at leisure—they are working, going to school, or doing both at the same time. Many unemployed and undereducated young people are desperate to work but cannot secure stable employment or make enough money to live on their own. Although they probably do receive support from their families during this period of semi-autonomy, most do not exhibit the signs of entitlement that are frequently ascribed to them.
The nation’s young adults are highly unlikely to return any time soon to the schedule for growing up that was normative among their parents and grandparents. The conditions driving the shift in the schedule are likely to be long-lasting. Policy makers must therefore begin to rethink and renovate the social institutions that were suited to the past, a time when the age of eighteen or twenty-one signified something different than it does today.