A 21st birthday used to represent a significant milestone in every American’s life. Not only could you get into bars legally, it was presumed that you had left adolescence behind, achieved psychological maturity and were ready to take on adult responsibilities. “That no longer applies completely,” according to Frank F. Furstenberg, Zellerbach Family Professor of Sociology. “When I ask my graduate students, ‘Are you an adult?’ they smile wistfully.”
Furstenberg’s anecdotal conversations with his students are supported by his research as director of the Network on Transitions to Adulthood, a group of scholars interested in examining the changing nature of early adulthood.
Using the past 100 years of census data on youth aged 16 to 30, Furstenberg and Elizabeth Fussell, a demographer at Tulane, found that the traditional landmarks of adulthood—starting a career, forming an independent household, starting a family—are now often postponed until after the age of 30. Their report “The Transition to Adulthood During the 20th Century: Race, Nativity and Gender” traces the changes for native-born, foreign-born, white and black men and women.
“The simplest reasons [for this demographic shift] are economic,” said Furstenberg. “Today a college education is required to enter the middle class.”
The soaring cost of higher education has also blurred the sharp boundaries between living at home, school and work. “Most people’s entrance to college starts at community college or at local four-year colleges,” said Furstenberg. Young people live at home with their parents while balancing work and studies. “This strings out the period when they can take on adult responsibilities,” Furstenberg explained.
Furstenberg and Fussell found that in the first half of the 20th century, most men were able to attain independence by age 20. “The decline in union jobs and the exportation of high-paying jobs abroad have meant that people are no longer free to go it alone and they remain dependent on their parents,” said Furstenberg.
Women have also seen a shift towards delayed marriage and more independent living while working and/or attending school.
Asked about President Bush’s recently announced $1.5 billion proposal designed to encourage disadvantaged young women to marry, Furstenberg said, “Getting young people to marry at earlier ages is swimming against all the current demographic data.”
By the age of 30, however, the most common status for young men in 1900 and in 2000 was married, employed household heads with children. “Young men and women are delaying, but not abandoning marriage and family,” said Furstenberg.
Furstenberg and his colleagues have no specific policy recommendations stemming from their findings, but they advise that American society will need to make adjustments to handle this demographic shift. “The institutions that would typically support young people as they made the transition to adulthood—schools, workplaces, and families—have not adapted to changing conditions of life in the 21st century,” he said.
Originally published on February 12, 2004