Public Release: 

Becoming an adult takes longer these days

Case Western Reserve University

It takes longer to become an adult these days, and passage into adulthood is more ambiguous and complicated than in the past, according to a Case Western Reserve University sociologist and researchers from Network on Transitions to Adulthood and Public Policy funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Caught between adolescence and adulthood, young people are navigating a new life phase. And to reach adulthood, they need greater help getting there from their families or other support systems.

"Although pinpointing the onset of adulthood is not easy, it's most certainly not the magic legal ages of 18 or 21," according to Richard Settersten Jr., chair of Case's department of sociology, and co-editor of the new book, On the Frontier of Adulthood: Theory, Research and Public Policy (University of Chicago Press, 2005, Settersten, with Frank Furstenberg Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania and Rubén Rumbaut from the University of California, Irvine, explore this new and often misunderstood period of life.

"Adulthood no longer begins when adolescence ends," Settersten and his colleagues say, especially where the "big five" traditional markers of adulthood are concerned--leaving home, finishing school, starting a job, getting married and having children. In prior generations, these transitions were completed by the mid-20s. Today, this set of transitions is often not completed until well into the 30s, even the late 30s, for many people. And what we might think about as a neat "three-box model" of life--with education up front, work in the middle, and retirement or leisure at the end--is crumbling. "This model of life," they say, "underlies the organization of many social institutions and policies, despite the fact that these old scripts of life no longer match the realities of the world today or how the lives of current generations of young people will unfold."

In some ways, the road to adulthood now more closely resembles that of agricultural times than the last few decades. At the turn of the last century, it took young people a long time to reach self-sufficiency while working family farms. Today, social institutions, especially educational institutions, have replaced the farm in allowing youth to cultivate the skills needed to be self-sufficient. The four-year college, in particular, serves to "bridge" adolescence and adulthood by providing shelter, planned activities, health care, adult and peer support and entertainment. For young people who do not attend residential colleges, other institutions may serve as important bridges--community colleges, the military, national service, and work organizations. But these settings, Settersten and his colleagues say, need to be "re-architected to provide stronger scaffolding for vulnerable groups of young people who do not have strong family supports in place." The Network is now conducting several large-scale demonstration projects to explore how this can be done.

According to Settersten, one of the new hallmarks of successful movement through early adulthood is "'interdependence' rather than 'independence.' Because this is a period of 'sink or swim' for American kids, those who manage to swim often do so only because they receive a great deal of family support or have other informal safety nets to prop them up as they make their way." These circumstances put young people in a position where they now are more attached to their parents than ever before. The book's contributors find that sizable costs associated with childrearing now occur between 18 and 34, in both money and time, and that these percentages have increased dramatically in the last 30 years.

"When middle-class families are making such tremendous levels of investments in their children through their 30s, we must especially ask about the fate of young people who come from struggling or fragmented families that simply cannot assist their children in these ways," Settersten says. "Worse still, we must ask about the fate of young people who have been in the foster care, special education, or juvenile justice systems and are abruptly cut off from state support when they hit 'eligibility cliffs' of 18 or 21. These groups are completely on their own without any safely nets whatsoever."

On the Frontier of Adulthood is the result of more than four years of collaborative research. Instead of asking the question, "What is wrong with young people today?" which so often seems to underlie media portrayals, Settersten says that he and his colleagues have instead been trying to understand "How have changing social and economic conditions combined to create a new life period, what new capacities and skills do young people now need to navigate this period successfully, and how do institutions and policies need to be revamped to smooth entry into and through adult life." Contrary to popular perceptions, Settersten and his colleagues do not find that young people are unwilling to take on adult roles. "If anything," he says, "the opposite may be occurring, as young people now seem very aware of how difficult it is to become 'independent' or 'autonomous' against current economic and social conditions, and they seem hesitant to make commitments they cannot honor or that they think may fail."


For further information on the activities of the John D. and Catherine T. Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood and Public Policy, see:

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.