Are We There Yet?

By Richard A. Settersten, Jr., professor of Human Development and Family Sciences, member of the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood and Public Policy.

“A 30-year-old single mother from Iowa laughed when asked whether she considered herself an adult: ‘I don’t know if I’m an adult yet. I still don’t feel quite grown up. Being an adult kind of sounds like having things, everything is kind of in a routine and on track, and I don’t feel like I’m quite on track.’”
— Furstenberg Jr., F. F., S. Kennedy, V. C. McLoyd, R. G. Rumbaut, & R. Settersten. 2004. Growing up is harder to do. Contexts, 3(3), 33-41.

It takes longer to become an adult today, and that passage is more complicated than in the past. Our MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood and Public Policy is focused on understanding the above passage.

In the eyes of the law and society, young people cross the threshold of adulthood at ages 18 or 21. But as our recent book On the Frontier of Adulthood (University of Chicago Press, 2005) reveals, few 21-year-olds today would actually be considered “adult” based on traditional markers such as leaving home, finishing school, starting a job, getting married and having children.

A lengthy period before adulthood, often spanning the 20s and even extending into the 30s, is now devoted to further education, job searching and exploration, experience in romantic relationships and personal development.

But we should not take these changes to mean that the early adult years are now an extended “moratorium” characterized by pervasive experimentation and the avoidance of commitments.

To be sure, a subset of young adults falls into this category. But most of the young people in our studies are seeking responsibility, negotiating autonomy, making commitments, nurturing relationships and finding ways to contribute to their communities. Yet many are having a difficult time finding their way, and it is taking them much longer to get there.

The new terrain of early adulthood carries tremendous social and cultural significance. For many young adults, navigating this transition phase is often possible only with significant family support. Accordingly, sizeable child-rearing costs now occur between the ages of 18 and 34, and they have increased dramatically in the last 30 years. While middle-class families make substantial investments in their children through their 30s, the fate of young people who come from struggling or fragmented families is therefore of great concern.

We must especially be concerned 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 age 18 or 21. These young people are without any safety nets whatsoever. Our network closely examined the struggles of these and other vulnerable populations in the subsequent book, On Your Own Without a Net (University of Chicago Press, 2005).

Our work is now focused on how social institutions and policies might be redesigned to more appropriately meet the needs of young people, and how the capacities of young people themselves might be strengthened so that they are better equipped to make their way.