What’s going on with young people today? The long and twisting path to adulthood

R. A. Setterson
B. Ray


Richard Settersten and Barbara Ray examine the lengthening transition to adulthood over the past several decades, as well as the challenges the new schedule poses for young people, families, and society. The authors begin with a brief history of becoming an adult, noting that the schedule that youth follow to arrive at adulthood changes to meet the social realities of each era. For youth to leave home at an early age during the 1950s, for example, was "normal" because opportunities for work were plentiful and social expectations of the time reinforced the need to do so. But the prosperity that made it possible for young adults of that era to move quickly into adult roles did not last. The economic and employment uncertainties that arose during the 1970s complicated enormously the decisions that young adults had to make about living arrangements, educational investments, and family formation. The authors next take a closer look at changes in the core timing shifts in the new transition? The lengthening time it now takes youth to leave home, complete school, enter the workforce, marry, and have children. They stress that todays new schedule for attaining independence leaves many families overburdened as they support their children for an extended period. The continued need to rely on families for financial assistance, the authors say, exacerbates the plight of young people from a variety of vulnerable backgrounds. It also raises complex questions about who is responsible for the welfare of young people and whether the risks and costs newly associated with the early adult years should be absorbed by markets, by families, or by governments. Settersten and Ray stress that the longer transition to adulthood strains not only families but also the institutions that have traditionally supported young Americans in making that transition such as residential colleges and universities, community colleges, military service, and national service programs. They emphasize the need to strengthen existing social institutions and create new ones to reflect more accurately the realities of a longer and more complex passage into adult life.



The transition between childhood and adulthood has changed over the past several decades. The authors of this paper trace this change and the reasons for it. Of note, the authors find economic stability to be a central reason for the increased time to adulthood in recent cohorts compared to cohorts from the 1950s. With more ability to gain economic prosperity and a reliable and sustainable income and employment, people are more likely to move out of their parents’ house at a younger age. However, when financial instability is present – whether on macro or micro scales – young people are more likely to leave their parents’ house at older ages. This lengthening of the time to independent adulthood leads to increased financial burden on their parents, who are supporting their offspring for longer periods of time than was planned.

The authors also take time to explore the difficulties of institutions that have historically played a role in helping young adults move into independent lives. These intuitions include residential colleges, community colleges, the military, and national service programs. As such, the authors suggest examining the current institutions and creating new ones that “reflect more accurately the realities of a longer and more complex passage into adult life” (p 19).

APA Citation

Setterson, R.A., & Ray, B. (2010). What’s going on with young people today? The long and twisting path to adulthood. Future of Children, 20, 19-41.

About the Study

Links to Article https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C50&q=What%E2%80%99s+going+on+with+young+people+today%3F&btnG=
Publication Type Journal Article
In Publication Future of Children
Type of Research Quantitative
Research Design Action research, Survey research (qualitative or quantitative)
Intervention/Areas of Study Student motivation, Student support
Level of Analysis Student-level
Specific Populations Examined Age groups
Peer-Reviewed Yes
Specific Institutional Characteristics of Interest
Specific Course or Program Characteristics
Outcome Variables of Interest Other
Student Sample Size
Citing Articles https://scholar.google.com/scholar?cites=5738052151592419206&as_sdt=5,50&sciodt=0,50&hl=en