Not Quite Adults

Richard Settersten and Barbara E. Ray have published Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood and Why It’s Good for Everyone (Bantam 2010). Their book is a product of the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood and Public Policy, an ambitious collaborative project that also yielded, among many other works, an article by Constance Flanagan and me on “Civic Engagement and the Transition to Adulthood.”

Not Quite Adults is admirably broad, accessible, and well-written, enriched by the stories and voices of real people. (The Network conducted 500 interviews). It begins with a vignette of a typical young person of 30 or 50 years ago, who left home and started life immediately after high school graduation. Today, in contrast, half of 18-24-year-olds still live in the bedrooms where they were children. The ages at which people become financially independent, move out of their parents’ homes, marry, vote, and finish their final degree have all risen rapidly.

One response is to view all these young people as slackers or immature. But that overlooks the profound difficulties young Americans face today in becoming independent. It also overlooks the many ways in which the third decade of life can be a valuable time for learning, developing skills and networks, and contributing to society. Finally, it overlooks serious gaps in the experience of different groups of young people. Some–Settersten and Ray call them “swimmers”–are using their young adult years to strengthen their positions, racking up advanced degrees and social networks before they settle into careers and families. This is all to the good (as long as their expectations of success aren’t excessive, leading to disappointment). Others–whom the authors call “treaders”–struggle to move through the cross-currents of economic insecurity. For them, the third decade of life is increasingly difficult, and they need social investment. Settersten and Ray point to Youth Build, Youth Corps, and Civic Justice Corps as examples of programs that need more support.

The book has its own interactive website, including a blog on which Rick Settersten asks most recently, “Why do so many Americans have it out for young people?” At a time when many of the basic indicators of young people’s well-being (crime, violence, teen pregnancy, and drug use) have been improving, older Americans seem convinced that the new generation is a threat. Asked to discuss “youth,” working class Americans immediately identify behavioral problems–violence, crime, lack of respect for adults and for themselves–while elites are just as concerned about low test scores and dropout rates. Meanwhile, the data on young people suggest substantial improvement.