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Transition to Adulthood Delayed, Marriage and Family Postponed, Study Finds


Becoming an adult takes longer today than in previous decades, with many not achieving all the traditional markers -- starting a career, forming a new household, starting a family -- until after age 30, according to a study by the Network on Transitions to Adulthood.

The Network, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, is directed by Frank Furstenberg, professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

According to the study, a demographic shift has occurred, almost without notice, but with important ramifications for the job market, the marriage market and public policy.

To examine the experiences of youth as they move toward adulthood, Elizabeth Fussell, a demographer at Tulane University, and Furstenberg of Penn used 1900-1990 U.S. Census data on youth aged 16-30 along with sample data from the Census Bureau’s 2000 Current Population Survey.

Fussell and Furstenberg’s report "The Transition to Adulthood During the 20th Century: Race, Nativity and Gender" includes findings on the shifting path to adulthood for native-born, foreign-born, white and black men and women.

The study finds that young people in the second half of the 20th century are traveling more pathways after finishing high school, combining more roles, exploring more options and gaining more education to prepare for an increasingly demanding labor force than did adolescents in the earlier half of the century. As a result, they are delaying but not abandoning marriage and family.

Among the study’s other findings:

- For men, the ability to support and thus form a family has declined. In the industrialized economy of the first half of the 20th century, most men were able to attain such independence by age 20. As the economy shifted, young men, and increasingly young women, have had to gain the education and skills necessary for an increasingly technical and information-based market. As a result, 25 year-old men in all groups are more likely to remain single and childless.

- Women, too, have seen a shift toward delayed marriage and more independent living while working or attending school. Among 25 year-old women, the fastest growing status is single, working, childless heads of household.

- Another trend for women is the growing proportion postponing marriage, but not necessarily motherhood, until after age 30. In 1980, one to two percent of white and foreign-born 30 year-old women were single mothers, rising to six percent in 2000. For black women, the rise has been from seven percent in 1970 to 26 percent in 2000.

- Differences between black, white and foreign-born populations in education and labor market opportunities have narrowed since the 1960s. The lives of blacks increasingly resemble those of their white peers as they have become more fully and equally integrated into society’s institutions. Nevertheless, fewer minority youth than native-born whites are participating today in education and work, a fact that deserves further investigation.

- Even after marriage, men and women continue to combine a variety of roles more often than in the past, such as attending school and working, both before and after becoming parents. Still, by age 30, most youth are settling into marriage and childrearing, as has always been the case. In 1900 and 2000, the most common status for 30-year-old men was and is married, employed household heads with children. Although off from its high point in the 1950s and 1960s, when 67 percent of all white men and about 50 percent of black and foreign-born men fit this description, this combination has remained most common since the 1970s.

The results of the study are to be published in the forthcoming book "On the Frontier of Adulthood: Theory, Research, and Public Policy," edited by Richard A. Settersten, Furstenberg and Ruben G. Rumbaut (University of Chicago Press.)

The Network on Transitions to Adulthood studies individuals aged 18-30. It examines the multiple markers of adulthood and the variety of combinations and sequences in which they occur. The Network also explores how societal institutions may facilitate the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Information about the network is available at

Jacquie Posey | University of Pennsylvania
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