Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood

Young adulthood is an overlooked era. Yet ages 18 to 30 is a time of profound change. The Network on Transitions to Adulthood is examining this important developmental period, shedding new light on what it means to become an adult in America.

About this Network

In the mid-1980s, researchers were beginning to notice a change: twenty-somethings were in no rush to embrace adulthood. They were more often moving back home or never leaving, they were delaying marriage, and they were taking their time in finding their calling. If this delay was indeed a new way of life, it could have considerable consequences. A delayed departure from the parental home, for example, could financially tax parents, whose own retirement was looming, or delay in marriage could mean fewer births in an already aging society.

With these issues in mind, the Network on Transitions to Adulthood began its work in 1999 to determine whether and how the path into adulthood was changing, and the consequences of these changes to societal institutions such as family, school, and work. (The Network completed its work in 2009.  For a comprehensive summary, See Transition to Adulthood, edited by Berlin, Furstenberg, and Waters, 2010).

Stage 1: Documenting the Trends

During its first stage of research, the Network documented that indeed the path into adulthood had not only lengthened, but had become less direct. During the post-war years through the mid-1980s, the path into adulthood was quick and direct; by age 25 most young people had accomplished the traditional markers of adulthood. By the late 1990s, however, the path was neither direct nor fast. In the matter of just a few decades, “adulthood” was now delayed until about age 30 or 35. Notably, as the march into adulthood slowed and as traditional institutions such as the workplace were slow to adapt, parental support, both financial and emotional, began to extend well into their children’s mid-to late twenties.

Stage 2: Explaining the Changes

The next phase of research examined the economic, cultural, and familial changes that were contributing to this slower path. It drew on both quantitative and qualitative analyses, including interviews with more than 500 young adults in five different sites across the country.

The Network found that the economy, surprisingly, was playing less of a direct role than imagined in the slow-down. Although many important economic shifts had occurred over the decades, such things as cost of living, wages, access to health insurance, job opportunities, and personal debt were not the driving factors in the prolonged path into adulthood.

More important than economic factors to the lengthening path were the cultural and familial shifts that had occurred, changes in young adults’ expectations about work, marriage, and children; and a growing ability to blend school with work or family roles.  

The research also discovered that the slower path was hardly uniform. Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, in fact, were more often hewing to the traditional path into adulthood, as were first-generation immigrant youth. The result for them was frequently a more perilous launch into adulthood, especially in managing the more daunting demands of entering and completing post-secondary education.

At the same time, the slower path presented new obstacles for families and youth, particularly those who were most vulnerable. As the path lengthened and demanded continued investment from parents, those whose families were fractured or who faced other disadvantages were often on their own without a net.  The result is a sharply tilted playing field for young adult development.

Stage 3: Policy Solutions

With a focus on the more vulnerable young adults, the Network suggested several policy changes to help narrow this growing divide between them and their more affluent and better-positioned peers.

Pathways from school to work: In collaboration with MDRC, the Network examined how community colleges—often the school of choice for lower-income and nontraditional students--could improve the success rate of students. Opening Doors documented initial promise in “learning communities” in community colleges, which fostered a deeper connection to school. The National Guard Challenge program, which sought to reconnect high school dropouts, was also promising. Network members also examined the power of civic participation to engage young adults.

Policy changes to programs serving vulnerable youth: Youth in juvenile justice or foster care systems, or those with special needs, are particularly vulnerable during this extended transition to adulthood. Network members offered several suggested policy improvements to help bridge this transition more successfully, including extending the age of “emancipation” from the foster care system from 18 to 21; creating a more developmentally aware approach to juvenile justice; improving collaboration across services that support special education students after high school; and better coordinating the patchwork of services available to those with serious mental disorders.

Key Research

Trends Analysis and Qualitative Study.   Two large studies mapped the extent of change in the pathway to adulthood. The first used existing data from the numerous national surveys (dating back to 1900) and the second, complementary, study interviewed 500 young adults to better understand how young people are navigating the transition. The latter study also examined the role of local context in shaping the transition to adulthood. Key findings: The transition to adulthood is no longer early, contracted, or simple.

See:  On the Frontier of Adulthood: Theory, Research, and Public Policy, edited by Richard A. Settersten, Jr., Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr., and Ruben G. Rumbaut (University of Chicago Press, 2005).

Coming of Age in America: The Transition to Adulthood in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Mary C. Waters, Patrick J. Carr, Maria J. Kefalas, and Jennifer Holdaway (University of California Press, 2011).

The Future of Children, “Transitions to Adulthood” issue (spring 2010). 

Vulnerable Populations.  This project documented the special challenges facing seven vulnerable populations during the transition to adulthood: youth in foster care, juvenile justice, criminal justice, homeless youth, special education students, and young people with mental or physical barriers. Policies and programs were recommended to improve these young people’s chances of becoming successful adults. Key finding: The demarcation between youth programs and adult programs in terms of eligibility and funding streams often create a dangerous gap in services for this already vulnerable group of young people.

See:   On Your Own Without a Net: The Transition to Adulthood for Vulnerable Populations, edited by D. Wayne Osgood, E. Michael Foster, Constance Flanagan, and Gretchen R. Ruth (University of Chicago Press, 2005).

Economic Issues Facing Young Adults.   This project brought together leading economists to examine whether economic conditions and changes were contributing to the slower path to adulthood. Key finding: Analyzing wages, cost of living, debt, job security, health insurance, and family background, the authors find that the delay in reaching adult milestones is not driven primarily by economic conditions.

See:  The Price of Independence: The Economics of Early Adulthood, edited by Sheldon Danziger and Cecilia Rouse (Russell Sage Foundation, 2007).