Becoming an adult is a life-cycle transition signified by multiple markers (Hogan and Astone 1986). These include the completion of education, the establishment of an independent residence, the attainment of economic self-sufficiency, marriage, parenthood, permission to vote and serve in the military, and the entry into full-time work. These multifaceted, objective markers of adult status, variability in the ages at which they occur, and differences in both preadult and adult roles, make the character of this transition variable across societies, historically relative, and subject to diverse interpretations and subjective meanings. Each new generation’s experience of transition to adulthood is somewhat unique, dependent on the particular economic, political and social currents of the time (Mannheim 1952). Institutional contexts (cultural, social, educational, economic) determine the pathways through which the transition to adulthood occurs, as well as the competencies that enable successful adaptation to adult roles.

In addition to the formal markers of transition, there are clearly recognized prerogatives of adult status (e.g., smoking, alcohol use, and sexuality) that are widely frowned upon or legally prohibited when engaged in by minors. Youth’s engagement in these ”problem behaviors” can be attempts to affirm maturity, gain acceptance by peers, or to negotiate adult status (Jessor and Jessor 1977, p. 206; Maggs 1997). Finally, there are even more subtle, subjective indicators of adult-hood—for example, the development of ”adultlike” psychological orientations or the acquisition of an adult identity. Considering oneself as an adult may or may not coincide with the formal markers of transition.

There has been a trend in the United States and Western Europe toward earlier assumption of full adult civil rights (e.g., the age at which it is legal to vote or to marry without parental consent) from the age of twenty-one to eighteen (Coleman and Husen 1985). Youth must be age eighteen to vote in France, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States, but must be twenty to vote in Japan (The World Factbook 1998).

Within countries, legal restrictions on the age at which certain events can occur, signifying adulthood to a greater or lesser degree, vary depending on the marker in question. For example, in the United States, a person has the right to vote and serve in the military at the age of eighteen, but must be twenty-one to purchase alcoholic beverages. At age sixteen, a young person can leave school and work in paid jobs without federal restriction on hours of work. (However, restrictions on work hours of sixteen and seventeen year olds exist in many states; see Committee on the Health and Safety Implications of Child Labor 1998). The legal age of marriage varies widely across U.S. states, from none to twenty-one (The World Factbook 1998), but the age of consent is sixteen to eighteen in most states (

However, many eighteen, and even twenty-one year olds in the United States and other modern countries would not be socially recognized as ”adults,” since they have not yet accomplished other key markers of transition. The law only sets minimum standards, and may have little relation to the age at which young people actually make the various transitions in question. Despite prohibitions on the use and purchase of alcohol until the age of twenty-one, ”it is more normative to drink during adolescence than it is not to drink” (Maggs 1997, p. 349). The majority of young people in the United States stay in school beyond the age of sixteen; they graduate from high school and receive at least some postsecondary education. With the extension of formal education, contemporary youth in modern countries delay the acquisition of full-time employment, and remain economically dependent for longer periods of time. Moreover, the legal age of marriage hardly reflects the average age of first marriage. Since the 1950s, it has been increasing (from 20.3 for women and 22.8 for men in 1950 to 24.4 for women and 26.5 for men in 1992; Spain and Bianchi 1996).


Neither the timing nor the process of becoming adult are universalistic or biologically determined. Throughout Western history, there has been increasing differentiation of early life stages, postponement of entry to adulthood, and change in the status positions from which adulthood is launched (Klein 1990). Some scholars argue that in medieval times persons moved directly from a period of infancy, when small size and limited strength precluded productive work, to adulthood, at which time younger persons began to work alongside their elders (Aries 1962).

A new stage of childhood, between infancy and adulthood, arose with the emergence of schools. As economic production shifted from agriculture to trade and industry, persons increasingly entered adulthood after a stage of apprenticeship or ”child labor.” By the beginning of the twentieth century, with schooling extended and child labor curtailed, adolescence gained recognition as the life stage preceding adulthood (Hall 1904). The adolescent, though at the peak of most biological and physiological capacities, remained free of adult responsibilities.

With more than 60 percent of contemporary young people obtaining some postsecondary education (Halperin 1998), a new phase of ”youth” or ”postadolescence” has emerged, allowing youth in their mid-to-late twenties, and even older youth, to extend the preadult ”moratorium” of continued exploration. This youth phase is characterized by limited autonomy but continued economic dependence and concern about the establishment of adult identity (Keniston 1970; Coleman and Husen 1985; Buchmann 1989).

Various forms of independent residence are now common in the United States before marriage (Goldscheider and Goldscheider 1993). Youth’s residence in dormitories (or, less commonly, military barracks) allows independence from familial monitoring, while a formal institution assumes some control (Klein 1990). Even greater freedom from supervision occurs when young people, still economically dependent on parents, live in their own apartments. For contemporary young people in the United States who enter the labor force after high school, a continuing period of ”moratorium” (Osterman 1989) lasts several years. During this time, youth hold jobs in the secondary sector of the economy to satisfy immediate consumption needs. They experience high unemployment and job instability (Borman 1991). At the same time, employers express preference for low-wage workers who do not require fringe benefits and are not likely to unionize. When filling adultlike ”primary” jobs, such employers seek evidence of stability or ”settling down.”

But youth ”irresponsibility” and employer reluctance to offer desirable jobs to youthful recruits are not universal in modern societies. Instead, they derive from particular institutional arrangements. In the United States, the absence of clear channels of mobility from education to the occupational sector, and youths’ lack of occupation-specific educational credentials, fosters a prolonged period of trial and instability in the early career (Kerckhoff 1996). In contrast, the highly developed institution of apprenticeship in Germany implies the full acceptance of young workers as adults, and encourages employers to invest in their human capital (Hamilton 1990, 1999; Mortimer and Kruger forthcoming).

The onset of adulthood has thus been delayed through historical time by the emergence of successive preadult life stages. This historical progression of preadult phases refers to the normative, legitimate pathways to adulthood. A highly problematic, but increasingly prevalent way station in the transition is supervision by the criminal justice system; indeed, it is estimated that a full ten percent of U.S. males, aged twenty to twenty-nine, is in jail, in prison, on parole, or on probation on any one day (Halperin 1998).

Obstacles to ”growing up” are sometimes presented when assuming adultlike statuses threatens adult interests and values. The extension of required schooling was motivated, at least in part, by a desire to curb competition for jobs with older workers (Osterman 1980). ”Warehousing” the young in secondary and tertiary education has reduced adolescent unemployment during times of economic contraction; earlier movement out of school into the workforce is promoted by economic expansion (Shanahan et al. 1998).

Societal wealth may also encourage postponement of adulthood and the extension of ”youthful” values and life styles to older ages. Japanese young people, traditionally oriented to the extended family, obedience, educational achievement, and hard work, seem to be becoming more rebellious and interested in immediate enjoyment as delayed gratification becomes more difficult to sustain in a more affluent society (Connor and De Vos 1989; White 1993).

Although age-related increases from birth through the second decade of life—in strength, cognitive capacity, and autonomy (Shanahan, this volume)—are probably recognized in some form in all human societies, the social construction of the early life course clearly reflects societal diversity and institutional change. Processes of modernization, encompassing changes in education, the labor force, and the emergence of the welfare state, produce age standardization of the early life course (Shanahan forthcoming). For example, the social differentiation of children and adolescents was less pronounced in the educational system in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America than in the contemporary period (Graff 1995). Secondary school students have become increasingly homogeneous in age; this more pronounced age grading promotes ”adolescent” life styles and orientations. Similarly, the extension of postsecondary schooling promotes the perpetuation of ”youth.” However, during the past century in the United States the changes marking the transition have taken place first in quicker, and then in more lengthy, succession (Shanahan forthcoming; Modell et al. 1976).

As a result of technological and economic change and increasing educational requirements (Hogan and Mochizuki 1988; Arnett and Taber 1994; Cote and Allahar 1994), as well as family instability (Buchmann 1989), the entry to adulthood has been characterized as increasingly extended, diversified, individualized (Buchmann 1989; Shanahan forthcoming), ”disorderly” (Rindfuss et al. 1987), variable (Shanahan forthcoming), and less well defined (Buchmann 1989). For example, while the acquisition of full-time work is widely considered to mark the transition to adulthood, distinctions between ”youth work” and ”adult work” blur as young people increasingly combine, and alternate, student and occupational roles, in various forms and levels of intensity through a lengthy period of adolescence and youth (Mortimer and Johnson 1998, 1999; Mortimer et al. 1999; Morris and Bernhardt 1998; Arum and Hout 1998). Markers of family formation likewise become less clear as young people move in and out of cohabiting and marital unions (Spain and Bianchi 1996).

Orderly sequences of transition events have become less common (Shanahan forthcoming). For example, many youth return to their parental homes after leaving for college or other destinations (Cooney 1994). Divergence from normative timing or sequencing sometimes generates public alarm, becomes defined as a social problem, and leads to difficulties for the young people whose lives exhibit such patterns. Whereas parenting is becoming more common outside of marriage (approximately one-third of births in the United States occur to unmarried women; Spain and Bianchi 1996), it is widely thought that nonmarital birth in the teenage years marks a too-early transition to adulthood. Adolescent parenting is linked to school dropout, difficulties in the job market, restricted income and marital instability (Furstenberg, et al. 1987). (However, Furstenberg and colleagues’ 1987 study of a panel of black adolescent mothers sixteen to seventeen years after their children were born actually showed considerable diversity in maternal socioeconomic outcomes.)

Still, assertions that the transition to adulthood is especially indeterminate, or becoming more difficult, in contemporary Western societies remain controversial. Graff (1995) documents the extended and equivocal nature of this transition in eighteenth- to twentieth-century America. Foner and Kertzer (1978) noted ambiguity even in premodern contexts, where elders and the rising adult generation often struggled over the timing of age-set transitions and corresponding transfers of power, wealth, and privilege. It is certain, however, that the transition to adulthood assumes a quite different character historically and across national contexts, and may be more clear in some than in others.


A series of psychological, or subjective, changes are expected to occur as young people move into adulthood. The adolescent is said to be oriented to fun, sports, popular music, and peers; receptive to change; and ready to experiment with alternative identities and sometimes, mood-altering substances (Hall 1904). Youth are encouraged to enjoy themselves as they continue to explore their interests and potentials. Osterman (1989) describes out-of-school employed youth as lacking career orientation; instead, they emphasize peer relationships, travel, adventure, and short-term jobs.

Young adults, in contrast, are expected to relinquish such dependent, playful, experimental, carefree, and even reckless stances of adolescence and youth, so that they can address the ”serious business” of life. Those who become financially and emotionally independent, productive, hardworking, and responsible are considered ”adult” (Klein 1990). Moreover, they themselves are expected to ”feel like” adults (Aronson 1998).

The concept of ”maturity” is integrally tied to adulthood. Most generally, it refers to the psychological competencies deemed necessary to adapt to the roles and responsibilities of adulthood (Galambos and Ehrenberg 1997). For Greenberger and Sorenson (1974), the term signifies autonomy, the capacity to make decisions on the basis of life goals and to function independently in work and other spheres; skills in communicating and relating to others; and social responsibility, the motivation and ability to contribute to the wider society. Greenberger and Steinberg (1986) worry that teenagers who have paid jobs become ”pseudomature,” as they take on adult identities and behavioral prerogatives without being psychologically equipped for them. Such pseudo-maturity can precipitate disengagement from more beneficial, albeit dependent and childlike, roles (especially the role of student). Bachman and Schulenberg (1993) similarly note syndromes of adultlike roles, activities, and identities that promote premature entry to adult family and occupational roles.

But like the objective markers of transition, beliefs about the specific attributes that define maturity, and how these competencies may be fostered and recognized, vary across time and social space (Burton et al. 1996). The extent to which youth feel that they possess such capacities, and the likelihood that adults will attribute these qualities to them, may be highly variable across social situations. Furthermore, in postmaterialist societies and especially in the more highly educated and affluent social niches within them, orientations promoting success in the economic sphere may recede in importance as criteria of maturity, in favor of continued ”youthful” emphases on freedom and self-actualization throughout adulthood (Vinken and Ester 1992; Inglehart 1990).

Meanings and interpretations of the various transitions signifying acquisition of adult status, such as those linked to family formation (Modell 1989), also exhibit historical and cross-societal variability. In contemporary modern societies, structural differences in the link between school and work (Shavit and Muller 1998) are reflected in the phenomenal experience of the transition into the labor force. Variation in the institutional connection between school and work in the United States and Germany influences the ages at which young people begin to actively prepare for the highly consequential decisions (especially regarding postsecondary schooling and career) that lie ahead of them, and the degree of stress and uncertainty they encounter in doing so (Mortimer and Kruger forthcoming).

It is widely believed that age norms, specifying the timing and order of key life events, influence the subjective passage, as well as the objective trajectory, through the life course (Neugarten et al. 1965; Neugarten and Datan 1973). ”On-time” transitions are ”culturally prepared” by socialization and institutional arrangements (Model 1989, p. 13), and are thereby rendered psychologically salutary. Those who are ”off-time,” too early or too late, are thought to be the target of negative social sanctions and to experience psychological strain (Rossi 1980). National polls on the ideal age to marry and become a parent yield age distributions that cluster around the modal ages at which these changes generally occur. But consistency in expectations, ”ideal ages,” or even in the actual timing of transitions, may have more to do with institutionally determined pathways and other structural constraints than personal norms.

The notion that norms control timing behavior is contradicted by evidence that age preferences (”ideal” ages for marker events) lag behind behavioral change (Modell 1980; McLaughlin et al. 1988, ch. 9). Marini (1984) notes that there is little direct evidence regarding the existence or content of social norms governing the timing of life events. She asserts that if norms (and associated sanctions) do exist, they probably vary by population subgroup (e.g., by socioeconomic status, gender, and ethnicity), and encompass such a wide range of acceptable ages that they lack causal import. In one study, college students’ expectations about the ages at which they would most likely traverse various markers of transition were found to be more variable than those of high school students (Greene 1990).

Older ages of marriage and finishing school, coupled with the increasing reversibility of status changes (serial marriages and cohabiting unions, adult education, etc.) could erode age norms, to the extent that they do exist, since such passages are ”no longer viewed in a linear way as transitions passed at a given point and left behind permanently” (Arnett 1997, p. 20). Historically, as objective markers of adulthood have become increasingly variable in their timing and sequencing, age norms may have lost whatever force they once had. But in fact, we do not know whether the failure to make particular transitions at an age when one’s contemporaries have mostly done so engenders a subjective sense of being ”too early” or ”too late” and creates stress, either for earlier cohorts or for contemporary young people.

Arnett (1997) found that youth themselves were more likely to choose psychological traits indicative of individualism and responsibility as necessary for a person to be considered an adult; as criteria for adult status, youth reject role transitions or ”objective markers” of adulthood, such as finishing school, marriage, or parenthood. Rituals, such as marriage and graduation, have traditionally allowed public recognition of successful passage to adulthood. If such objective markers of transition have less psychological salience than in the past, they may be less important in signifying and reinforcing adult status.

However, in Arnett’s study, two such transitions were endorsed by the majority: living outside the parental household and becoming financially independent of parents. These linked changes, signifying autonomy from parents, may have important symbolic meaning for young people as they contemplate becoming adults. So too, three-fourths of the participants endorsed ”decide on personal beliefs and values independently of parents or other influences” (p. 11) as criteria of adulthood.

Consistent with Arnett’s research, there is apparently no clear correspondence between particular objective markers (e.g. graduating from college, beginning a full-time job) and young people’s subjective identification of themselves as ”adults.” Aronson (1999b) found that some contemporary young women in their mid-twenties do not ”feel like” adults, even when occupying roles widely considered to be indicative of adulthood. Interviews revealed a great deal of ambiguity about adult identity, as well as career uncertainty, despite having already graduated from college and begun full-time work linked to postsecondary areas of study.

Asynchronies in the age-grading systems of different societal institutions generate status inconsistencies (Buchmann 1989) with important psychological implications. If adultlike identities are confirmed in some contexts, such as the workplace, but not in others, such as the family, this discrepancy could produce strain. Moreover, the ”loosening” of age-grading and structured sequencing in transitional activities decreases the ability to predict the future from current circumstances (Buchmann 1989), and may thereby engender both stressful situations and depressive reactions (Seligman 1988).

It is widely believed that adolescence and youth are stressful life stages, and that problems diminish with successful acquisition of adult roles (Modell et al. 1976). Consistent with this supposition, youth have been found to exhibit less depressed mood from late adolescence to early adulthood, as they move from high school into postsecondary education and, especially, into full-time work roles (Gore et al. 1997). Moreover, there is evidence that men’s self-perceptions of personal well-being and competence decline during college, but rise during the following decade (Mortimer et al. 1982).

However, women’s morale may follow a less sanguine trajectory from adolescence through midlife (Cohler et al. 1995). Contemporary women are more likely than those in the historical past to take on multiple and conflicting roles. Difficulties in balancing work and family may be particularly acute and stressful during the transition to adulthood (Aronson 1999a), as increasing numbers of young women attempt to balance the conflicting demands of single motherhood, work, and postsecondary education.

Though the literature tends to focus on problematic outcomes of historical change and the loosening of age-graded social roles, greater diversity in the sequencing and combination of roles (schooling and work, parenting and employment) have promoted more diversified, and autonomous, courses of action. Indeed, the allowance of more diverse sequences of transitions enables some youth to escape from dissatisfying circumstances in adolescence, for example, by leaving home (Cooney and Mortimer 1999).

The greater individualization and lengthening of the adult transition and early life course in recent times may increase the potential for freedom, and the effective exercise of choice, as well as stress. The extension of formal education allows more time for the exploration of vocational and other life-style alternatives (Maggs 1997). Although change in occupational choice in the years after high school (Rindfuss et al. 1990) may be seen as indicative of a kind of ”floundering” and instability, it also may reflect youth’s increasing capacity to assess alternatives before making a firm vocational commitment. Modell’s (1989) social history of the transition to adulthood in twentieth-century America finds youth increasingly taking charge of their heterosexual relationships and the formation of new families, becoming ever freer of adult surveillance and control. Aronson (1998) found that contemporary young women appreciate their life-course flexibility (Aronson 1998).


The transition to adulthood is a highly formative period for the crystallization of psychological orientations relating to work, leisure (Inglehart 1990), and politics (Glenn 1980). Alwin and colleagues’ (1991) study of a panel of Bennington college women from the 1930s to the 1980s reports extraordinary persistence of political attitudes formed while in college over an approximately fifty-year period (a stability coefficient of .781). Work orientations also become more stable following early adulthood (Lorence and Mortimer 1985; Mortimer et al. 1988). Three explanations have been put forward to account for this pattern: The first implicates the environment; the second, features of the person; the third combines both elements. According to the first line of reasoning, the relatively dense spacing of major life events during the transition to adulthood generates external pressures to form new attitudes or to change previous views (Glenn 1980). While similar events can occur later in life (e.g., a job or career change, remarriage, or entry into an adult education program), they are usually spaced more widely and are like those experienced previously, rather than wholly new circumstances requiring adaptation. Similarly, experiences at work generally assume greater constancy after an initial period of job instability (Osterman 1980). Primary relationships that provide support for attitudes are often in flux during the transition to adulthood; thereafter, stable primary groups may provide continuing support for previously crystallized attitudinal positions (Sears 1981; Backman 1981; Alwin et al. 1991). According to this perspective, there may be continuing capacity to change throughout life (Baltes et al. 1980), but if environments become more stable after the adult transition, there will be less impetus for such change (Moss and Susman 1980).

A second explanation links the ”aging stability” pattern to intrapersonal processes that increasingly support the maintenance of existing personality traits, and resistance to change. Mannheim’s (1952) classic concept of generation implies that the young are especially receptive to influences generated by the key historical changes of their time (economic upheaval, war, or political revolution). Analysis of data from the European Values Survey shows that younger cohorts are less religiously traditional, are more sexually and morally permissive, and value personal development more highly than older cohorts (Vinken and Ester 1992).

Alwin and colleagues (1991) find evidence for a ”generational/persistence model,” which similarly combines notions of vulnerability in youth and persistence thereafter. Before role and character identities are formed, the person may be quite malleable. However, preserving a consistent, stable sense of self is a major motivational goal (Rosenberg 1979); and once self-identities are linked to key attitudes and values, the person’s self may become inextricably tied to those views (Sears 1981). Moreover, feelings of dissonance (Festinger 1957) arise when attitudes and beliefs that provide a sense of understanding are threatened (Glenn 1980). Consistent with the notion that young adults may be more ready to change, occupational experiences (i.e., related to autonomy) have stronger influences on the work orientations of younger workers (ages sixteen to twenty-nine) than of those who are older (Lorence and Mortimer 1985; Mortimer et al. 1988).

According to a third point of view, an interaction between the young person and the environment fosters a process of ”accentuation” of preexisting traits. While early experiences provide initial impetus for personal development, attitudes and values formed in childhood or adolescence are later strengthened through the individual’s selection, production, and/or maintenance of environmental circumstances that support earlier dispositions. According to this view, youth making the transition to adulthood select and/or mold their environments (Lerner and Busch-Rossnagel 1981) often so as to maintain (or to reinforce) initial psychological states. This process typically results in an ”increase in emphasis of already prominent characteristics during social transitions in the life course” (Elder and Caspi 1990, p. 218; see also Elder and O’Rand 1995).

Such processes of accentuation take many forms. For example, students choosing particular college majors become increasingly similar in interests and values over time (Feldman and Weiler 1976). Mortimer and colleagues’ (1986) study of a panel of young men showed that competence measured in the senior year of college predicted work autonomy ten years later, which in turn, fostered an increasing sense of competence. Similarly, intrinsic, extrinsic and people-oriented values prior to adult entry to the workforce led to the selection of occupational experiences that served to strengthen these value preferences. A similar pattern was found among high school students seeking part-time jobs; intrinsic values predicted opportunities to acquire skills and to help others at work, and further opportunities for skill development strengthened intrinsic values (Mortimer et al. 1996). Alwin and colleagues’ (1991) follow-up study of women who attended Bennington College in the 1930s indicated that the choice of associates and the formation of supportive reference groups—e.g., spouses, friends, and children—played a substantial part in maintaining the women’s political values.

Elder’s longitudinal study of young people growing up during the Great Depression amassed considerable evidence that successful encounters with problems in adolescence can build confidence and resources that promote effective coping with events later in life, fostering personality continuity (Elder 1974; Elder et al. 1984). Thus, early achievements and difficulties can give rise to ”spiralling” success and failure. For members of the Oakland cohort, early economic deprivation provided opportunity to help the family in a time of crisis; the consequent increase in self-efficacy, motivation, and capacity to mobilize effort fostered adult work and family security. Elder and Caspi (1990) similarly find that adolescents with more resilient personalities reacted more positively as young adults to combat in World War II. Such reciprocities are also evident among women in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth; early self-esteem predicted educational attainment and more substantively complex employment, which, in turn, further enhanced their sense of worth (Menahgan 1997).

In contrast, negative early events may set in motion processes that accentuate problems. Early failures can produce psychological reactions and cognitive attributes that perpetuate poor outcomes. There is evidence from several studies that early unemployment fosters distress, self-blame, and negative orientations toward work in general, engendering continued failure in the labor market (Mortimer 1994). Traumatic war experiences in early adulthood can threaten marriage and thereby reinforce a cycle of irritability (Elder and Caspi 1990, p. 235).

Whereas sociologists emphasize the social determination of early adult outcomes, and social psychologists have noted enduring personality traits that influence the process of transition to adulthood, changes in both socioeconomic and personal trajectories do occur, frequently at times of life-course transition. Change can occur as a result of ”fortuitous events” that intervene in the developmental process rather than reinforcing patterns of preadult behavior (Elder and Caspi 1988, p. 102). For example, marriage to a nondeviant spouse, the quality of a first marriage, or of economic self-sufficiency from a full-time job may lead to change in direction of a previously ”disorderly” or otherwise problematic early life course (Rutter and Quinton 1984; Sampson and Laub 1993; Gore et al. 1997). ”Identity transformations” (Wells and Stryker 1988) can also result when ”turning points” (Strauss 1959) in personal history intersect with a rapidly changing historical context to alter a previously held worldview (Aronson forthcoming).


Social scientists are giving increasing attention to processes of individual agency, including goal setting, choice among alternative lines of action, and the mobilization of effort, which influence trajectories of attainment throughout the life course. Early orientations toward, and expectancies about, competent action are critical for later adult success (Mainquist and Eichorn 1989). Jordaan and Super (1974) report that adolescents’ planfulness, responsibility, and future orientation predicted their level of occupational attainment at the age of twenty-five. The more explorative adolescents, who were actively engaging of the environment, had more positive early adult outcomes. ”Planful competence,” denoting ambition, productivity, and dependability in adolescence, has also been linked to men’s adult occupational status and marital stability (Clausen 1991, 1993). These attributes imply planfulness, delayed gratification, an intellectual orientation, and a sense of control over goal attainment. Planfully competent adolescents actively explore future options and opportunities, and select those that match their developing proclivities and potentialities. This process gives rise to a better fit between the person and the environment, fostering satisfaction and stability in adult social roles (see Shanahan and Elder 1999).

However, the institutional structure, and the individual’s place within hierarchies establishing unequal resources and opportunities, may either facilitate or limit the effective exercise of agency. Shanahan (forthcoming) speaks of ”limited strategic action,” resulting from ”the dynamic tension between selection and assignment.” Because the relation between courses of study and higher educational outcomes is often obscure, students may have limited ability to alter negative educational trajectories (Dornbusch 1994). The consequences of planfulness may also be historically variable, depending on the degree of opportunity available to a cohort at critical phases of its life course (Shanahan and Elder 1999).

As the process of acquiring adultlike markers of transition becomes more complex and ambiguous, a wide variety of psychological orientations— including aspirations, values, goals, life plans, self-concepts, and identities—may become increasingly determinative of subsequent outcomes (Mortimer 1996). In fact, both general (Bandura 1996) and facet-specific (Grabowski et al. 1998) dimensions of efficacy are predictive of goal-directed behavior and achievement. Fact-specific orientations include expectations relevant to particular spheres, such as school and work.

The social structural conditions and circumstances that enable some young people to continue to pursue their goals despite obstacles, and others to relinquish them, deserve further study. However, in some circumstances, more favorable outcomes will accrue to those who are more flexible. Kerckhoff and Bell (1988) find that the achievement of postsecondary educational credentials in the form of some vocational certificates yield higher earnings than attaining only some college. The relative merit of tenacious goal pursuit (e.g. a baccalaureate degree) versus the substitution of new, more realistic, alternative objectives (”assimilation” and ”accommodation” in Brandtstadter’s [1998] terminology) may be determined by structurally constrained resources as well as opportunities.

The character and outcomes of the transition to adulthood are clearly dependent on diverse resources that are differentially distributed among young people (Shanahan forthcoming). There are social class differences in the age at which adult roles are acquired, in the character of marking events, and even in the availability of opportunities to assume adult-status positions (Meijers 1992). The socioeconomic background of the family of origin sets the level of available resources, fostering intergenerational continuity in attainment (Blau and Duncan 1967; Sewell and Hauser 1976; Kerckhoff 1995). Relative advantage or disadvantage can derive from placement in familial and other networks that provide information (Granovetter 1974; Osterman 1989), for example, about higher educational opportunities, jobs (Lin 1992), or even prospective marital partners. A lack of resources, as well as instability (McLanahan and Sandefur 1994), in the family of origin is associated with disadvan-taged transitions to adulthood. Moreover, structural sources of cumulative advantage, such as advantageous placement in ability groups, high school tracks or secondary schools, increase the likelihood of higher education (Kerckhoff 1993; Garmoran 1996).

Personal resources facilitating the educational and occupational attainment process have been linked to social class background. Adolescents’ educational and occupational aspirations, and their educational attainments, are important mediators of the effects of occupational origins on destinations (Featherman 1980; Featherman and Spenner 1988). The transmission of self-directed values may also constitute a mechanism through which socioeconomic status is perpetuated across generations (Kohn and Schooler 1983; Kohn et al. 1986). Close father-son relationships in late adolescence engender continuity in paternal occupations and values, and sons’ work values and early adult-occupational destinations (Mortimer and Kumka 1982; Ryu and Mortimer 1996). Parents of higher socioeconomic level typically engage in more supportive child-rearing behavior (Gecas 1979), which fosters the development of personality traits such as competence, work involvement, and positive work values, that facilitate early adult socioeconomic attainments (Mortimer et al. 1986).

Gender differences in future orientations can foster differences in achievement. For example, if young women view their futures as contingent on the needs of future spouses, children, and others, this will diminish their propensity to make firm plans (Hagestad 1992), thereby diminishing their attainment. Despite dramatic changes in adult women’s employment (McLaughlin et al. 1988; Moen 1992), and in contrast to young men’s occupational aspirations, many young women are ”talking career but thinking job” (Machung 1989, pp. 52-53).

Geissler and Kruger (1992) have identified different patterns of contemporary ”biographical continuity” among young German women, each having important implications for career achievement. Traditionally-oriented women expect to have limited labor force participation and to be economically dependent on a husband. Career-oriented young women emphasize the acquisition of professional qualifications and delay marriage. Still others are actively concerned with both work and family spheres. Such divergence in future orientations and planning influences the intensity of striving for achievement and attainment during the transition to adulthood.

Moreover, to the extent that young women are aware of the difficulties adult women face, resulting from employer discrimination and the unequal division of family work, this would likely depress expectations for labor market success. Ambivalence about work could exacerbate the detrimental consequences of other psychological differences (relative to males) for socioeconomic attainment, such as lower self-efficacy, lower self-esteem, and higher levels of depressive affect (Simmons and Blyth 1987; Gecas 1989; Finch et al. 1991; Shanahan et al. 1991; Mortimer 1994). It is therefore not surprising that although women have narrowed the historical gap in educational attainment (McLaughlin et al. 1988), they often get ”diverted” from their initial plans, emphasizing romance over academics (Holland and Eisenhart 1990). For today’s women, taking on adult work and family roles is more likely than for men to result in the termination of schooling (Pallas 1993).

If the family is an important institutional context for the acquisition of economic and other resources for the adult transition, family poverty or disintegration may be expected to have negative consequences. Experiences in youth may thus set in motion a train of events that have a profound impact on the early life course. Disruption and single parenthood in the family of origin, and the economic loss and emotional turmoil that frequently ensue, may jeopardize parental investment in children and youth. However, Coleman (1994) argues that declining investments in the next generation may occur even in more favorable and affluent circumstances. As the functions of the family are transferred to other agencies in welfare states (e.g., as the government takes over education, welfare, support of the aged, and other functions), there is a declining economic dependence of family members on one another. As the multigenerational organization and functions of the family weaken, parental motivation to invest attention, time, and effort in the younger generation may also decrease throughout the population.

However, Shanahan (forthcoming) speaks of ”knifing off’ experiences during the transition to adulthood, which can enable some youth to escape from poverty, familial conflict, stigmatization, and other debilitating circumstances of their childhood and teen years. For example, service in the military enabled many men from disadvantaged backgrounds to extricate themselves from the stressful circumstances of their families, mature psychologically, and therefore be in a better position to take advantage of educational benefits for veterans after World War II (Elder and Caspi 1990).

The availability of opportunities for anticipatory socialization or practice of adult roles may also affect adaptation to them. Contemporary youth spend much of their time in schools, cut off from meaningful contact with adult workers (excepting their teachers). Some have expressed concern that this isolation from adult work settings reduces opportunities for career exploration and encourages identification with the youth subculture (Panel on Youth 1974). Many parents encourage adolescent children to work, believing that this experience will help them to become responsible and independent, to learn to handle money, and to effectively manage their time (Phillips and Sandstrom 1990). However, ”youth jobs” are quite different from adult work, involving relatively simple tasks and little expectation of continuity.

The impacts of part-time employment during adolescence for the transition to adulthood is the subject of much controversy (Committee on the Health and Safety Implications of Child Labor 1998, ch. 4). While the full impact of employment in adolescence is not known, there is evidence that increasing investment in paid work (as indicated by the number of hours spent working per week) is associated with reduced educational attainment (Marsh 1991; Chaplin and Hannaway 1996; Carr et al. 1996). However, several studies have shown that employment during high school also predicts more stable work histories and higher earnings in the years immediately following (Mortimer and Finch 1986; Marsh 1991; Ruhm 1995, 1997; Mortimer and Johnson 1998). Stern and Nakata (1989), using data from noncollege youth in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, report that more complex work activity in adolescence is associated with lower incidence of unemployment and higher earnings three years after high school.

The meaning of adolescent work also influences subsequent educational and occupational outcomes. For example, employment has been found to have a positive effect on high school students’ grades when the workers are saving their earnings to go to college (Marsh 1991; Ruscoe et al. 1996). Consistently, youth who effectively balance their part-time jobs with school, working near continuously during high school but restricting the intensity of their employment to twenty hours a week or fewer, were found to have high early-achievement orientations and obtained more months of post-secondary education (Mortimer and Johnson 1998).

There is further evidence that the quality of adolescent work experience matters for psychological outcomes that are likely to influence adult attainment (Mortimer and Finch 1996). For example, adolescent boys who felt that they were obtaining useful skills and who perceived opportunities for advancement in their jobs exhibited increased mastery (internal control) over time; girls who thought that they were being paid well for their work manifested increasing levels of self-efficacy (Finch et al. 1991). Exposure to job stressors, in contrast, heightened depressive affect (Shanahan et al. 1991).

For the most disadvantaged segments of society there is concern that poor educational opportunities and a rapidly deteriorating economic base in the inner cities preclude access to youth jobs as well as to viable adult work roles (Wilson 1987), irrespective of personal efficacy, ambition, or other traits. The shift from an industrial- to a service-based economy has lessened the availability of entry-level employment in manufacturing. Economic and technological change has created a class of ”hard-core unemployed”; those whose limited education and skills place them at a severe disadvantage in the labor market (Lichter 1988; Halperin 1998). Black males’ lack of stable employment in U.S. inner cities limits their ability to assume the adult family role (as male provider) and fosters the increasing prevalence and legitimacy of female-headed families.

Research on African-American adolescents suggests that the transition to adulthood may differ significantly from that of non-minority teens. Ogbu (1989) implicates beliefs about success as critical to understanding the paradox of high aspirations among black adolescents and low subsequent achievement. The ”folk culture of success,” fostered by a history of discrimination and reinforced by everyday experience (e.g., the observation of black career ceilings, inflated job qualifications, housing discrimination, and poor occupational achievement despite success in school), convinces some young blacks that desired occupational outcomes will not be assured by educational attainment. Given the belief that external forces controlled by whites determine success, alternative strategies for achievement may be endorsed— hustling, collective action, or dependency on a more powerful white person. These, in turn, may diminish the effort in school that is necessary to obtain good grades and educational credentials.

In the context of urban poverty and violence, youth expectations for a truncated life expectancy (an ”accelerated life course”), may lessen the salience of adolescence as a distinct life stage (Burton et al. 1996). With few employment and educational opportunities available, these youth often focus on alternative positive markers of adulthood, such as becoming a parent, obtaining material goods, or becoming involved in religious activities. Under such conditions, even a menial job can engender and reinforce ”mainstream” identities and ”possible selves” as economically productive working adults (Newman 1996). However, structural opportunities pervasively influence achievement orientations and outcomes throughout the social class hierarchy; such processes are clearly not limited to any particular societal stratum (Kerckhoff 1995).

Supportive families and other social bonds are predictive of successful adjustment in the face of poverty and other disadvantages (Ensminger and Juon 1998). Families who are successful in these circumstances place great emphasis on connecting their adolescent children with persons and agencies outside the immediate household, in their neighborhoods and beyond, thereby enhancing their social networks and social capital, invaluable resources in the transition to adulthood (Furstenberg et al. 1999; Sullivan 1989).

In summary, becoming an adult involves changes in objective status positions and in subjective orientations. The transition to adulthood has changed through historical time as a result of economic, political, and social trends. Contemporary young people face increasingly extended and individualized paths in the timing and sequencing of their movement into adult roles. The transition to adulthood is found to be a critical period for the crystallization of key orientations and values. Adult status placement and adjustment are influenced by socioeconomic background and poverty, gender, early employment experiences, and psychological resources.

The multiplicity of transition markers, the variety of macrostructural and personal influences, and the little-studied subjective component give rise to important challenges and complexities in the study of this phase of life.

Next post:

Previous post: