What is emerging adulthood like in America today? What influence does gender, ethnicity, class, education, subjective experiences and geographic location have on young adults? In 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) the views of young adults in four locations across America are implemented to shed light on coming of age.
The path to adulthood has changed much since the 1950s when the transition to adulthood was a more uniform process and occurred earlier in life. The markers of adulthood then included "…finishing school, leaving home, finding work, marrying, and having children" (p. 12). Societal changes such as the women's movement, the postindustrial economy, staying in school longer and marrying and having children at a later age has transformed the process of adulthood. To better understand the situation of young adults in America, each chapter in the book takes us to a different location while examining the path to adulthood.
Ellis, Iowa, (population 2,000) is a rural small town and the first location to be analyzed. In Ellis the transition to adulthood is more traditional than in any of the other locations. Many young adults state that marriage and family is expected of them and they therefore marry and start a family early. The authors identified three characteristics of young adults (that includes five pathways to adulthood): the "leavers", "stayers" and "returners". The leavers are either the so called "achievers" who leave Ellis for higher education, or the "seekers" who leave for personal development, experiences, or to join the military. The returners are further placed in two categories; the "boomerangs" who leave for a while and then return and the "high-flyers" who return after they finish higher education or other forms of training. The stayers are those who remain in Ellis, and who like it there.
So why do some young adults leave while some stay or eventually return? Schooling, work, social support and social reproduction plays a crucial role. Some young adults are encouraged to focus more on academics than others. Those who do are less likely to work and more likely to engage in extracurricular activities. Some young adults work to help out their family, or to gain greater independence and freedom. Support, encouragement, financial means and other circumstances therefore play a crucial part in determining who leaves, who stays and who returns to Ellis.
The second location is St. Paul, Minnesota. Here, young adults experience a prolonged or delayed transition to adulthood for several reasons. One is in the sphere of work where young adults are less likely to know exactly what profession they would like to settle down in. When extending education, young adults often encounter a variety of different jobs where they drift in and out of the job market and explore their options. Overall, many young adults are content with their job prospects and with finding work that is meaningful to them. Issues such as the cost of school, educational debt, and problems with their educational careers exist, but many young adults are optimistic about finding a career with a purpose where they can help others.
Young adults also find that they rely much on their parents in terms of involvement, providing resources, financial help, housing and babysitting. Many young adults who live at home for various reasons state that they enjoy living with their parents, but also that they do so in many cases because they cannot afford living on their own. A minority of young adults still lives with their parents in order to take care of them. When it comes to forming families of their own, many young adults want marriage and children, but they feel no sense of urgency. Many are also looking for life partners (with the exception of single mothers who are less likely to want to marry).
New York City is the third location where coming of age was analyzed. Two important characteristics of NYC that shape young adults are the diverse population, and the virtual disappearance of affordable housing. Achieving the traditional markers of adulthood is difficult in NYC where housing is very expensive and higher rates of young adults in NYC live at home than in any other part of the nation. Therefore, young adults tend to state that working is the most important marker of adulthood. There are also differences in terms of gender and ethnicity concerning who lives at home and who moves out. Native-born respondents, women, whites and Blacks are more likely to live on their own compared to other ethnicities.
Even though there are other important markers of adulthood in the NYC study, such as higher education, employment, finding a partner and starting a family, the housing situation in NYC is imperative in the markers of adulthood. Therefore, the author identified three characteristics of young adults: the "late launchers", "boomerangs" and those in "multigenerational living". The late launchers stay at home because they are still in school, or because they are trying to save money. The boomerangs are those who return home after a period of being on their own, and those in multigenerational living are overall more comfortable living with their parents, and often take care of them. Except for these characteristics, being able to afford housing depends much on a person's education, class, human capital and material resources.
The last location is San Diego, California. San Diego is the sixth largest city in the U.S and the oldest in California. In this study, the authors focus on young adults who were foreign-born or have foreign-born parents. Many young adults expressed "immigrant optimism" concerning their chances of success in America. Their parents also expressed a wish for them to graduate from college. Again, the authors identified patterns to adult outcomes for the respondents. The "motivated achievers", have high expectations and also high outcomes in terms of educational careers. The "optimistic strivers" have high expectations, but moderate outcomes in terms of their educational careers. The "wishful thinkers" also had high expectations, but were not able to fulfill their educational goals. The "uncertain achievers" (comprising a small percentage of the total sample) had low expectations, but were able to achieve high educational outcomes.
Similarly to the other studies, many young adults face financial and emotional obstacles to attaining an education. Parental pressure, motivation, resources and human capital also play a significant role in determining the collegial success of emerging adults.
The last chapter is a conclusion of the studies, but it also discusses the emerging difficulties to afford housing, college and attaining a job in the current economy in America. The traditional markers are still important to young adults, but are often attained later in life and in a different order than in previous generations. Young adults tend to rely on their parents to help them achieve some of these markers, and even though certain age markers still define adulthood (turning 18 and 21), the path to adulthood is less linear even though it is still based on normative assumptions about what adulthood is.
Coming of Age in America serves to extend and analyze the emerging interest in the path to adulthood in America. Therefore, it is a valuable addition to similar books and research. At the same time, it can be used by teachers and students in the classroom and it is an excellent tool for discussions about adulthood and the road to adulthood for young adults. The diverse locations and the inclusion of multiple characteristics and factors that influence young adults is impressive as it covers much ground while extending current knowledge on the topic. At the same time, when examining the path to adulthood, the book provides a mostly heteronormative view, including the notion of marriage and children. It would therefore be interesting to know more about this transition for young LGBTQ adults and how/if the transition varies. For example, how important is coming out to family, friends, and one's community in the path to adulthood?
Coming of Age in America is written in an accessible manner while it explains and highlights various definitions related to young adults and adulthood. The book is therefore accessible to anyone interested in the current economic climate in various locations across America and how young adults today deal with coming of age.
© 2012 Hennie Weiss
Hennie Weiss has a Master's degree in Sociology from California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.