The transition to adulthood looks very different than it once did. The transition to adulthood has been elongated and a sequential pattern to this transition has become less identifiable. No longer do young people transition in a lockstep pattern from education, to marriage, to stable work, to childbearing (Settersten, 2005). Common sequences related to the transition to adulthood reminiscent of life since the 1950s, no longer apply to contemporary young adults. The overarching societal structures have greatly impacted the transition to adulthood, including educational systems and family structure. In the last 100 years the necessary education to meet societal standards of living has changed from minimal attendance to increased necessity of secondary and vocational training to the contemporary necessity of university degrees and continued education even through a individuals career (Kohli, year). This increased educational attainment for young adults requires many young people to in turn delay marriage and family formation as they concentrate on education (source). Concepts and expectations related to family have also changed. Marriage is delayed, divorce is common and cohabitating couples have increased. These factors certainly interact with the experiences of young people who transition into adulthood who may wait to marry or cohabitate for longer periods of time without the commitment of marriage.
The definition of adulthood has also changed. Many young people are not able to clearly articulate when they became an adult or if they are an adult (Molgat, 2007) (many people of even older ages may have a hard time expressing this as well, begging the question of what adulthood actually means for the larger population). In the past, adulthood has been marked by certain role changes; the traditional markers relate to finishing school, starting a career, marriage, childbirth, and owning a house. In particular, the onset of certain social roles ensue people to identify as young adults. Parenthood is viewed by some as a definitive step in becoming an adult, particularly because of the responsibilities and role changes associated with it (Osgood et al., 2005). However, in qualitative interviews young people may indicate that it was not even until their second or third child that they felt like an adult. Also, young people may be able to avoid the responsibility of a child by having their parents (the child’s grandparent) take care of the child. Parenthood does not always equal adulthood. In the past, these markers were also associated with a typical age or age range when young adults experience these markers. These markers, however, have become unsystematic for young adults occurring at different times, at a different pace, and they may not even be reached until the mid to late 30’s. As these markers have been pushed back for young adults, does this mean that a 35-year-old was not an adult until they married at age 35 and consider children at age 37? Young adults are likely to have varied definitions of transitioning to adulthood given the recent convoluted experiences of young adulthood.
Identification as an adult may be swinging from less emphasis on social roles to the actual attributes young people experience regardless of their circumstance (Arnett, 2000). A sociologist would argue that these attributes arise from the social experiences within a person’s life but perhaps these experiences which give young people a sense of adulthood needs to be more broadly defined (Osgood et al, 2005). Many young people report that a feeling independence, self-sufficiency, responsibility or being able to take care of themselves financially leads to them as identifying as an adult (Arnett, 2000). Yet, many 30-year-olds may still be reliant on their parents for financial support, especially given the current economic climate. Does this mean they are not yet adults? As demonstrated the role expectations and contexts of transitioning into adulthood are less clear than 30 years ago. The transition to adulthood can cause confusion for young adults as traditional makers of adulthood such as marriage, full-time work, exits from education, and childbearing do not hold the same meanings as these markers did for young adults’ parents.
Again, I turn to the broader social structures that have influenced some of the changes contemporary young adults experience. The life course overall has been elongated. People live longer and healthier than they did compared to 70 years ago). The lengthening of lives and the expectation of living longer afford people’s experiences between life and death to be more varied and less standardized (Moen, 2003). This has also allowed the period of adolescence and young adulthood to be extended. People can delay some commitments because it seems as though they have a lifetime to complete them. Furthermore, fertility is more controlled than 50 years ago (Mayer, 2004). People are choosing to have children later because they can control to some extent with the infusion of birth control; this is also intertwined with education and the economic climate. Couples can also have fertility interventions if they decide to have children late. In American Dream (DaParle, 2005) a young women in the 60’s speaks of her grandmother taking care of her when her mother died, yet her grandmother was only 37. Now, 37 might the time a woman is becoming a parent for the first time and grand parenting will be in the distant future. It may be that the clustering of these experiences with social roles may be the prominent pathways to feel like an adult (Schulenberg et al., 2005).
Arnett (2000) also describes young adulthood as unique phase primarily because of the demographic (these are the role changes mentioned above), subjective and identity characteristics unique to this phase. Demographically these roles have been pushed back later in the life course and also happen more haphazardly or in less standardized order than past generations. Subjectively young people are ambivalent about their adult status, not knowing whether to identify as an adult or not. Their subjective experience of being an adult is crucial, however, as opposed to some of the more objective markers. Finally, he argues that young people are still exploring their identities during this time. The identity exploration once primarily connected with young adulthood is now thought to happen more so during a person’s twenties. Other theories and researchers argue that it is the overarching structures which have lead to these changes in adulthood (Cote & Brynner, 2008). They assert that not all young people experience what Arnett (2000) describes. The experiences of young adults are vastly different given young people’s and their families social position in society. Not all young adults have been given the same opportunities or privilege to explore their identity during this phase. This is especially true of more disadvantaged populations of youth, such as youth in the foster or juvenile system, poor, homeless, and rural youth (Settersten, 2007).
As opposed to young people actually choosing these varied pathways, these unique combinations of experiences may relate more to institutional, contextual and social differences between groups of young adults. The timing of when young people experience these transitions and the pace they experience them vary because of institutional and structural factors that influence both the human and social capital of young adults (Cote & Bynner, 2008). Many young people get to rely on their parents during these transitions, youth in foster care and from poorer families do not experience this same support. For example, foster care youth are forced to live independently at age eighteen. This will result in very different experiences for these youth as they navigate adulthood compared to youth whose parents still contribute to their finances until they are 25 years of age or even older (Hamilton & Hamilton, 2009). Also, youth from poor families may need to help their families after graduating high school as opposed to attending college or working to support themselves. These youth may also be involved in the caretaking of their younger siblings. The parents of these young adults are not an asset to these youth as opposed to their more privileged counterparts. Parents, however, are now needed and expected as a support while young people experience the first time transitions related to young adulthood (Settersten, 2007). The experiences of more disadvantaged young adults may either be especially delayed or fast forwarded.
Many other youth are provided the opportunity to attend college where they experience a sense of being “semi-independent” (Kett, 1977). The semi-independence of college lets young people experience living on their own in a slower transitional mode as they start living in the dorms and may eat in the cafeterias. They are slowing weaned off the full support of their parents into the college support system and finally they experience these transitions on their own and with their own social supports. What happens to youth who did not get to attend college? They do not get the luxury of experiencing a “semi-independence” or the developmental supports experienced in college. They will likely have less income and fewer opportunities for jobs without the necessary education attainment (U.S. Department of Education, 2006). Marriage may not be typical of these young adults as its delayed patterns become more and more the norm. Moreover, many youth in poverty cannot take advantage of a delayed adulthood. They may experience disconnection from social institutions and be forced into responsibilities (Hamilton & Hamilton, 2009).
Furthermore, homeless young adults are not only combating the issues of obtaining a job, being self-supporting, and forging life on the streets they are experiencing the stigma’s of being homeless (Hagan & McCarthy, 2007). Internalizing the stigma of being homeless seems especially crucial for these young adults given this critical period of identity formation. Many of these youth have had catastrophic family backgrounds and experiences on the street and connecting them with social institutions is precarious but essential. The very systems that protect the middle and upper class such as the police force may be too afraid to go into the poor neighborhoods of these young people or may even be the perpetrators of harassment toward these young adults (Hagan & McCarthy, 2007). Expectations and social codes are less likely transmitted by family and parents for homeless young adults given their transient relationships. Homeless young adults likely frame their transition to adulthood very differently compared to residential young adults given the hardship of living on the streets and the financial survival methods they must employ.
Young adulthood is also experienced differently by geographic locations, urban or rural. The institutional and social structural supports related to the transition to adulthood very significantly for those living in a rural environment. Rural young people may not have the same opportunities to connect to pertinent social structures such as higher education and career related institutions (Wald & Martinez, 2003). These youth must choose to stay in their home town with limited opportunities related to work and schooling or to leave their rural setting to pursue education and career opportunities but sacrificing the community and social supports of their home. Thus, another dimension of choosing to leave a familiar lifestyle and community support is added to the already convoluted decisions related to young adulthood. Moreover, the youth who decide to stay in their communities may be more vulnerable related to education and career outcomes (Oyserman & Fryber, 2006).
To the best of my knowledge I have not found strong evidence of experiences with the traditional transition makers or pathways to adulthood relating to a specific gender (Schulenberg et al., 2005). I am sure this is an area ripe for research but also gender may be a less salient concept for contemporary young adults as many social roles do not carry the same gender connotations as in previous generations.
Poverty: An Ecological Perspective of Young Adults
Understanding the ecological levels including micro level personal characteristics, meso level relationships, and the broader macro level policies related to young adults in poverty and from impoverished backgrounds is essential. Creating pathways of social mobility is critical during the transition to adulthood as young people experience excess role changes within institutional structures. Young adulthood may be an especially critical time where social mobility can occur as young people navigate these systems for the first time; creating pathways for future opportunities (Hamilton & Hamilton, 2009). At the same time young adulthood is likely a particularly sensitive and vulnerable time because young adults are “doing” these transitions for the first time, meaning they could be volatile or missteps could have long lasting effects into adulthood.
At the microlevel, psychosocial characteristics may be essential for young adults to navigate the uncharted waters of adulthood. These characteristics are likely even more vital for young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds (Settersten, 2007). Hamilton & Hamiliton (2009) argue that sense of purpose and agency are essential characteristics at the individual level. My research also supports the important role sense of purpose plays in young adulthood (Dolenc, 2009). Having a clear sense of purpose to guide individuals may be crucial as young adults set out to reach goals and fulfill adult responsibilities; consequently, they must have goals and aspirations in the first place. A sense of purpose likely connects young people to social and institutional structures as well. Cultivating a sense of purpose in disadvantaged youth helps them to navigate and guide them during the many transitions of adulthood. Furthermore, youth being empowered and understanding that they can act upon their environment to create social mobility is essential. However, institutions which support and cultivate young people’s agency are also important, these individual characteristics surely interact with broader systems and resources available to young people.
Hamiliton and Hamilton (2009) also emphasize social capital as essential for young adults in poverty. High quality interactions in the mesosystem are essential for youth outcomes (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006). The interactions in the mesosystems that relate to human capital and social capital are important for upward social mobility. Mentoring can help build these social interactions and networks for disadvantaged young people. Institutions can emphasize provide social connections for young people. Furthermore, structural and policy level changes can occur to better support these young adults which create increased social interactions for these youth.
Within the macro system policies that provide multiple supports for the multiple pathways of young adults are needed, especially for vulnerable youth. The policies in the macro system also influence young adults related to education and job opportunities. Adolescence and young adults are essentially left out of policies that typically support vulnerable populations. As adolescence and young adulthood are usually viewed as a time of vitality, welfare policies are primarily directed to children and people of older ages. Perhaps policies that could help support vulnerable young adults are in order as well. For instance, extending the familial support of the foster care system to an older age would be more appropriate given the current state of young adulthood. Furthermore, providing ways for youth to gain access to health care when even mimumge wage and entry level jobs are hard to find should be addressed. Understanding how more disadvantaged youth can be equipped with the skills to enter the labor market and become engaged in their communities is essential. Hamilton and Hamilton (2009) suggest the apprenticeship model of Germany as an example of an institutional support and call for more private/public partnerships that could help these vulnerable young adults. Community colleges in the US have also been explored as a possible alternative mechanism for these youth to access social mobility. As youth age and transition into adulthood their developmental outcomes become more dependent on the environment. Clearly more diverse institutions are needed to support the multiple pathways of young adulthood.