the changing transition to adulthood

Consider that:

In 1970, there were about 1.5 million Americans above the age of 25 who were enrolled in some kind of school. In 2004, about 7 million people were over 25 and still in school (pdf).

In 1970, almost half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 were married. Today, 15 percent of that age group is married. (pdf)

The median age of first marriage for women is 25. In 1970, it was 20.8. I think most of the increase reflects later marriage by middle-class, college-educated women.

In 1961, about 4 percent of all first births were to mothers over the age of 30. By 1994 almost one third of first births were to mothers in their thirties or forties (and I wish I had more recent statistics).

American parents spend an average of $38,000 per child while their children are between the ages of 18 and 34–a huge downward flow of cash.*

Many young Americans are delaying the traditional markers of full adulthood (finishing school and beginning a career; marrying and having a first child), thereby transforming the third decade of their lives. They are receiving massive investments in the form of training and educational experiences, paid for in large part by Mom and Dad. They are entering a work force in which success seems to depend on education, travel, internships, and other learning experiences–so much so that it takes until nearly age 30 to start really working and building a family.

On the other hand, many Americans are not in a position to stay in school through their 20s or to receive tens of thousands of dollars in subsidies from their parents after age 18. Whereas the transition to adulthood has lengthened for middle- and upper-middle-class young people, it is no more protracted today for poor youth than it used to be. They are still on their own when they finish high school, with little investment from the government or families. They are most likely to interact with the government as members of the military or as prisoners.

It’s time, I think, to focus on the supports that working-class adults receive during their twenties, while their middle-class contemporaries are developing skills and interests.

*Frank F. Furstenberg Jr., Ruben G. Rumbaut, and Richard A. Settersten Jr., “On the Frontier of Adulthood,” in Settersten, Furstenberg, and Rumbaut, eds., On the Frontier of Adulthood: Theory, Research, and Public Policy (University of Chicago Press, 2005):

3 thoughts on “the changing transition to adulthood

  1. anotherpanacea

    This problem seems intimately tied to your May 22 post on generational inequality. The downward flow of cash is partly based on the current distribution: since the boomers are holding a larger portion of the capital than their predecessors did when they were in their twenties, they can afford to spend it this way. For similar reasons, career opportunities for newly-minted adults are less remunerative than they would otherwise be, and those who can afford to plan for the future can take advantage of the benefits of investing in education and experiences.

    But while middle class twenty-somethings are biding time until they can take over for their parents, they’ve become engaged in an educational arms-race. I think you’re right that the working class is being outclassed in degrees, skills, and experiences. When Bush confronted this problem in January, he argued that education (specifically No Child Left Behind) is the solution. Sadly, I think that it would be difficult to close the gap through mere accreditation: I think we’re seeing the larger effects of a political economy that widens inequalities, and mostly irrelevant skills and experiences (European vacations, poststructuralist literary theory) are becoming the new status markers that will justify (untaxed!) windfall inheritances and hirings based on contacts and networks.

  2. Peter Levine

    From Sherman Dorn:

    Dear Mr. Levine,

    Please don’t fall into the common trap of looking at the Baby Boom as representative of history — I think you’ve done it here by referring to the median age of marriage, birth statistics, etc. The truth is that the proportion of young women who were married in the 1960 census was an all-time high (72% of all 20-24-year-old women enumerated in 1960 had been married at least once). The stats for 1930 and 1980 (% of women 20-24 who had ever been married) are virtually identical (54% and 50%, respectively). The 1961 birth statistics? Yikes! The peak of the Baby Boom in total fertility rate was in 1957.

    There have certainly been changes, but please don’t use 1961 as the benchmark year for anything in terms of family or childhood history.


    Sherman Dorn

    University of South Florida

  3. Joseph Sinatra

    From Twenty Years of Hull-House:

    ‘It was not until years afterward that I came upon Tolstoy’s phrase “the snare of preparation,” which he insists we spread before the feet of young people, hopelessly entangling them in a curious inactivity at the very period of life when they are longing to construct the world anew and to conform to their own ideals.’

    ~Jane Addams

    I think it’s interesting to juxtapose this post with your post titled ‘the “fit” between cultures and the labor market (’ Then one wonders what kind of support working class (all?) adults should receive and what kinds of values should the institutions that provide that support embody.

Comments are closed.