Achieving ’Adulthood’ Is More Elusive for Today’s Youth
Today, adulthood no longer begins when adolescence ends. In the bridge to adulthood, also referred to as early adulthood, many more young people are caught between the demands of employment (e.g., the need to learn advanced job skills) and economic dependence on their family to support them during this transition.
While most young adults are physically mature and possess the intellectual, social, and physiological skills needed for adulthood, many lack the economic independence to become a self-sufficient adult. For example, many are living in their parents’ home. The new definition of adulthood and the difference between people in their 20s and 30s today compared to those in the 1960s is presented by sociologists in an article in the summer issue of Contexts magazine, published by the American Sociological Association.
Lead sociologist researcher, Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr., University of Pennsylvania, and colleagues on the Network on Adult Transitions funded by the MacArthur Foundation states, “Many [young people] have not become fully adult yet—traditionally defined as finishing school, landing a job with benefits, marrying, and parenting—because they are not ready, or perhaps not permitted, to do so. The life events that make up the transition to adulthood are accompanied by a sense of commitment, purpose and identity.”
The traditional definition of adulthood is changing in regards to marriage and parenting. Research from the late 1950s and early 1960s found antipathy toward people who remained unmarried and toward couples who were childless by choice. Psychologists Joseph Veroff, Elizabeth Douvan, and Richard Kulka found that more than half of Americans in 1957 viewed someone who did not want to get married as selfish, peculiar, or morally flawed. By 1976, less than a third of a similar sample held such views. According to the General Social Survey, an opinion poll administered to a nationally representative sample of Americans, the more contemporary definition of adulthood does not necessarily include marriage and parenthood.
Now, said Furstenberg, “The most important milestones are completing school, establishing an independent household, and being employed full-time—concrete steps associated with the ability to support a family.” At least 95 percent of Americans surveyed consider education, employment, financial independence, and the ability to support a family at least somewhat important to being considered an adult.
The article’s researchers used U.S. Census data collected since 1900 to compare the lives of young adults over time. Their findings confirm that it takes much longer to make the transition to adulthood today than a few decades ago, and longer than at any time in America’s history. According to traditional benchmarks, 65 percent of males had reached adulthood by the age of 30 in 1960 and only 31 percent had reached adulthood in 2000. For women, the number was 77 percent in 1960 and 46 percent in 2000. Among 25-year-old women, 70 percent in 1960 had attained traditional adult status, whereas in 2000 only 25 percent had done so. (Because women in 1960 rarely combined work and motherhood, married full-time mothers are counted as financially independent in both years.)
If using the more contemporary definition of adulthood—one that excludes marriage and parenthood—then the contrasts are not as dramatic. In 2000, 70 percent of men aged 30 had left home, were financially independent, and had completed their schooling, just 12 points lower than was true of 30-year-old men in 1960. However, this does not take into account the number of independent, educated young people who do not feel that they are capable of supporting a family.
“For both men and women, these changes can largely be explained by the increasing proportion who go to college and graduate school, and also by the postponement of marriage and childbearing,” said Furstenberg. He said that in addition to the disappearance of subsidies and the growing cost of college and housing, “the primary reason for a prolonged early adulthood is that it now takes much longer to secure a full-time job that pays enough to support a family.”
Economists Timothy Smeeding and Katherin Ross Phillips found in the mid-1990s that 70 percent of American men aged 24 to 28 earned enough to support themselves, while fewer than half earned enough to support a family of three. More than at any time in recent history, parents are being called on to provide financial assistance (either college tuition, living expenses or other assistance) to their young adult children. Researchers Robert Schoeni and Karen Ross from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research conservatively estimate that nearly one-quarter of the entire cost of raising children is incurred after they reach 17 (including their education).
“The timetable of the 1950s is no longer applicable,” said Furstenberg. “It is high time for policy makers and legislators to address the realities of the longer and more demanding transition to adulthood.”