On the Frontier of Adulthood Theory, Research, and Public Policy
edited by Richard A. Settersten Jr., Frank F. Furstenberg and Rubén G. Rumbaut
University of Chicago Press, 2005
Cloth: 978-0-226-74889-4 | Paper: 978-0-226-74890-0 | Electronic: 978-0-226-74892-4


On the Frontier of Adulthood reveals a startling new fact: adulthood no longer begins when adolescence ends. A lengthy period before adulthood, often spanning the twenties and even extending into the thirties, is now devoted to further education, job exploration, experimentation in romantic relationships, and personal development. Pathways into and through adulthood have become much less linear and predictable, and these changes carry tremendous social and cultural significance, especially as institutions and policies aimed at supporting young adults have not kept pace with these changes.

This volume considers the nature and consequences of changes in early adulthood by drawing upon a wide variety of historical and contemporary data from the United States, Canada, and Western Europe. Especially dramatic shifts have occurred in the conventional markers of adulthood—leaving home, finishing school, getting a job, getting married, and having children—and in how these experiences are configured as a set. These accounts reveal how the process of becoming an adult has changed over the past century, the challenges faced by young people today, and what societies can do to smooth the transition to adulthood.
"This book is the most thorough, wide-reaching, and insightful analysis of the new life stage of early adulthood."—Andrew Cherlin, Johns Hopkins University
"From West to East, young people today enter adulthood in widely diverse ways that affect their life chances. This book provides a rich portrait of this journey-an essential font of knowledge for all who care about the younger generation."—Glen H. Elder Jr., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
"On the Frontier of Adulthood adds considerably to our knowledge about the transition from adolescence to adulthood. . . . It will indeed be the definitive resource for researchers for years to come. Anyone working in the area—whether in demography, sociology, economics, or developmental psychology—will wish to make use of what is gathered here."—John Modell, Brown University
"This is a must-read for scholars and policymakers who are concerned with the future of today's youth and will become a touchpoint for an emerging field of inquiry focused on adult transitions."—Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Columbia University




Richard A. Settersten Jr. is a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at Oregon State University. He is the author of Lives in Time and Place: The Problems and Promises of Developmental Science.Frank F. Furstenberg Jr. is the Zellerbach Family Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is coauthor of Managing to Make It: Urban Families and Adolescent Success.Rubén G. Rumbaut is professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine. He is coauthor of Immigrant America: A Portrait and Legacies: The Story of the Immigrant Second Generation.


"With all of its uncertainties and consequences, the young adult transition remains a source of great fascination and concern. How one enters adulthood matters, and we know surprisingly little about how children make their way to adult roles. On the Frontier of Adulthood tells us a story of remarkable variation in this transition by historical time and across contemporary societies. From West to East, young people today enter adulthood in widely diverse ways that affect their life chances. This book provides a rich portrait of this journey-an essential font of knowledge for all who care about the younger generation."
— Glen H. Elder Jr., Glen H. Elder Jr.

"This book is the most thorough, wide-reaching, and insightful analysis of the new life stage of early adulthood. It emphasizes the diversity of young adults' experiences today and explores the different life paths they follow. It concludes with some valuable lessons for public policy."
— Andrew Cherlin, Andrew Cherlin

"On the Frontier of Adulthood adds considerably to our knowledge about the transition from adolescence to adulthood, in the hope that the information may also be used to affect policy. It will indeed be the definitive resource for researchers for years to come. Anyone working in the area-whether in demography, sociology, economics, or developmental psychology-will wish to make use of what is gathered here."
— John Modell, John Modell

"On the Frontier of Adulthood is a remarkable and timely volume on that often ignored and sometimes misunderstood transition between adolescence and adulthood. The editors focus on the myriad choices that youth have available to them and the difficulties associated with negotiating the challenges of being twenty-something in our society. The complexity of life paths, the unequal distribution of opportunities, and the patchwork nature of institutions and policies directed toward serving twenty-somethings are all described in arresting detail. This is a must-read for scholars and policymakers who are concerned with the future of today's youth and will become a touchpoint for an emerging field of inquiry focused on adult transitions."
— Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn

"Start with 14 massive longitudinal data sets, add analysis and insight from 35 academics . . . stir in MacArthur Foundation funding for this network to meet and collaborate, and let the mix mature and take shape for several years. The result: sixteen chapters, most of them quite good and some excellent, in a very large volume that is, arguably, the most definitive overview yet of the emerging phenomenon of early adulthood in North America."
— Harvey Krahn, Canadian Journal of Sociology

"The breadth and depth of this volume make it an invaluable guide for scholars, policymakers, and program officers. . . . The book's strengths lie in its comprehensive treatment of the contemporary experience of becoming adult, the variety of data sets and methods used, and its ability to look both backward to how adulthood was achieved by earlier generations and forward to how we as a society can smooth the transition for future generations."
— Ann Meier, Journal of Marriage and Family

"The strength of the book lies in the vast detail provided on what it takes to be an adult in contemporary western society written by talented scholars, most of whom are the leading figures in their subdisciplines. The coverage of topics and the theoretical and empirical insights are almost exhaustive."
— Monica A. Longmore, Contemporary Sociology

"This volume is really at the frontier of research on young adulthood and makes a very important contribution to the literature on the transition to adulthood. As such, it is compulsory reading for anyone with a serious interest in this life phase."
— Aart C. Liefbroer, European Journal of Population

"This work amply demonstrates that changing social conditions have also changed the way young people transition to adulthood. . . . This is the initial effort of a large, important, and continuing project."
— Harris Chaiklin, Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease

"The strengths of this text include its broad scope, use of rigorous, empirical research to explicate the themes, clear writing, and sophisticated grasp of the multiple perspectives necessary for understanding the changes in early adulthood over the past century. . . . On the Frontier of Adulthood  is highly recommended for students, researchers, and policymakers who are interested in the emerging field of early adulthood. It is comprehensive, yet readable, and would be an appropriate graduate course text, and a welcome addition to a more experienced scholar's library."
— Sarah Taylor, Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare


About the Editors and Contributors

MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood and Public Policy


- Frank F. Furstenberg Jr., Rubén G. Rumbaut, Richard A. Settersten Jr.
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748924.003.0001
[adolescence, adulthood, young people, generation gaps, post-secondary education, adult life, adult transitions, well-being, substance use, social policy]
Shifts in culture and society worked together to define adolescence as a meaningful life period separate from childhood and adulthood. Similar forces are at work today to make early adulthood a distinct and socially recognized stage of life. This book draws together information from a variety of sources to provide a more accurate and textured picture of early adulthood. It analyzes demographic, social, and economic transitions that occur as young people enter adult roles. It explicitly compares historical eras, cohorts, or nations to show that the transition to adulthood looks very different today than it did fifty or a hundred years ago. The book examines issues of race, nativity, and gender in the transition to adulthood during the twentieth century; historical trends in patterns of time use among young adults in developed countries; generation gaps in attitudes and values from the 1970s to the 1990s; post-secondary education and early adult life; early adult transitions and their relation to well-being and substance use; and how social policy can help young people in their transition to adulthood. (pages 3 - 26)
This chapter is available at:
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- Elizabeth Fussell, Frank F. Furstenberg Jr.
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748924.003.0002
[young people, adulthood, race, nativity, gender, twentieth century, secondary education, marriage, childbearing, sociodemographic status]
This chapter offers a broad overview of the experience of youth from 1900 up to the present. It describes changes in the experience of young people between the ages of sixteen and thirty who lived between 1900 and 2000, distinguishing between men and women, native-born and foreign-born individuals, and native-born whites and blacks. It relates changes in the combinations of adult statuses that average young people in these groups experience both to historical events and to structural and cultural change. Using U.S. census data, the chapter identifies the ways in which the transition to adulthood has become more complex in the latter half of the twentieth century but also the greater similarity among gender, race, and nativity groups in the way in which the transition to adulthood is experienced in terms of sociodemographic status combinations. As more young people, regardless of gender, race, or nativity, participate in secondary education through their teens, young people leave home at later ages. Furthermore, the norms surrounding the appropriate age for marriage and childbearing have changed radically over the century. (pages 29 - 75)
This chapter is available at:
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- Elizabeth Fussell, Anne H. Gauthier
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748924.003.0003
[women, independent living, family formation, young people, social structures, United States, adulthood, adult transitions, cohabitation, marriage]
This chapter compares the timing and prevalence of transitions to independent living and family formation to determine whether young people are rejecting family formation and to ascertain how social structures that vary among a set of countries may be contributing to differences in the transition to adulthood. It describes the transition to adulthood for women in the United States and compares it with that of women in countries with contrasting social, economic, and policy contexts. It uses data from the U.S. National Survey of Family Growth and comparable data from the Family and Fertility Surveys carried out in Canada, Germany, Italy, and Sweden to illustrate differences in the timing of adult transitions and the degree of adherence to a “traditional” pattern of family formation between cohorts and nations. The chapter compares these cohorts in terms of the timing of their acquisition of family statuses (leaving the parental home, cohabitation, marriage, and childbearing), the prevalence of these transitions within cohorts, and the combinations of statuses acquired by a given age. (pages 76 - 109)
This chapter is available at:
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- Lawrence L. Wu, Jui-Chung Allen Li
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748924.003.0004
[women, United States, marriage, childbearing, family diversity, fertility, Current Population Surveys]
Conventional wisdom holds that because women early in the twentieth century had relatively fewer life options, their pathways through marriage and childbearing were simpler than those for women born later in the twentieth century. Diversity in women's family lives, thus, should have increased dramatically over time, with much of what we regard as new, diverse, and “non-traditional” in patterns of marriage and childbearing emerging only recently. By analyzing the marital and childbearing behaviors of women in the United States born between 1914 and 1970, this chapter shows that diversity in women's patterns of marriage and childbearing is not confined to recent generations and that family diversity has not increased over time. To describe trajectories of marriage and childbearing, the chapter uses retrospective data on the marital and fertility experiences of U.S. women available in the June 1980, 1985, 1990, and 1995 Current Population Surveys. (pages 110 - 149)
This chapter is available at:
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- Anne H. Gauthier, Frank F. Furstenberg Jr.
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748924.003.0005
[time use, young adults, adult transitions, adulthood, education, paid work, housework, child care, leisure, travel]
Time use among young people varies greatly during the transition to adulthood and is strongly regulated by social roles, constraints, and obligations. Yet, time use has not been one of the indicators traditionally used by scholars to study adult transitions. This chapter examines broad historical trends in patterns of time use among young adults as they make their transition to adulthood. It poses two main questions: whether patterns of time use among young adults have changed since the 1970s and whether there has been a convergence in the patterns of time use of men and women. To answer these questions, the chapter uses a series of time-use surveys carried out in eleven industrialized countries since the 1970s. For each of these subgroups of young adults, the chapter identifies seven broad categories of time use: education, paid work, housework, child care, leisure, personal activities, and travel to and from school and/or work. (pages 150 - 176)
This chapter is available at:
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- Tom W. Smith
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748924.003.0006
[young adults, adulthood, generation gaps, attitudes, values, religious beliefs, abortion, civil liberties, sex, institutions]
This chapter examines the contemporary transition to adulthood by comparing the current entry generation (those aged eighteen to twenty-four) both to earlier emerging generations and to older age groups at the same point in time. It analyzes the generation gap by focusing on young adults' differences in values, attitudes, and behaviors across time and age groups. This includes attitudes toward abortion, civil liberties, crime, social policy, family and gender roles, and intergroup relations, as well as levels of confidence in political, economic, and social institutions, religious beliefs, and sense of personal and financial well-being. The results show that the generation gap has narrowed from the 1970s to the 1990s. Declines in the generation gap have been largest and most sustained within the areas of abortion, civil liberties, crime, gender roles, sex and sexually explicit materials, and socializing. Smaller and/or shorter-term declines have occurred for confidence in institutions, government spending, intergroup relations, social welfare, suicide/euthanasia, well-being, and work and finances. (pages 177 - 222)
This chapter is available at:
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- Michael J. Shanahan, Erik J. Porfeli, Jeylan T. Mortimer, Lance D. Erickson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748924.003.0007
[adulthood, Youth Development Study, young people, emerging adulthood, subjective age identity, self-perceived adulthood, family transitions, financial independence, personal qualities, adult transitions]
For many decades, scholars held that five transition markers delineated entry into adulthood: completing school, leaving home, beginning one's career, marrying, and becoming a parent. Based on these five criteria, however, the percentage of youth in their twenties and thirties who would qualify as adult has decreased significantly in recent decades. Drawing on data from the Youth Development Study, this chapter assesses the importance of the traditional transition markers and personal qualities in predicting whether young people view themselves as adult. It begins by briefly considering the conceptual and empirical basis for claims about the changing nature of adult identity. It then discusses the conceptual basis of “emerging adulthood” and subjective age identity before presenting empirical evidence for conceptions of adulthood. The results show that: the respondents distinguish among dimensions of self-perceived adulthood; family transitions significantly distinguish youth who feel not at all or somewhat like an adult from those that feel entirely like an adult; financial independence significantly, positively predicted self-perceived adulthood. Taken together, these results support the expectation that family transition markers and self-perceived adulthood are interrelated. (pages 225 - 255)
This chapter is available at:
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- Ted Mouw
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748924.003.0008
[adolescence, adulthood, adult transitions, demographic transitions, National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, adult outcomes, marriage, childbearing]
The transition from adolescence to adulthood is “demographically dense” in that it involves a number of significant demographic transitions: leaving home, finishing school, starting work, marriage, and childbearing. The evidence suggests that over the first half of the twentieth century the transition to adulthood became more age stratified and occurred over a shorter period of time. Recent evidence, however, suggests that since 1970 it has taken birth cohorts longer to achieve these demographic markers of adulthood. Using longitudinal data from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), this chapter explores how many different pathways to adulthood there are and whether the transition has become less structured over time. It asks whether adult transitions can be characterized by diverse pathways and is “disordered” compared to some normative sequence of events, and whether the different pathways affect adult outcomes. (pages 256 - 291)
This chapter is available at:
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- Gary D. Sandefur, Jennifer Eggerling-Boeck, Hyunjoon Park
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748924.003.0009
[adulthood, adult transitions, educational attainment, families, schools, childbearing, marriage, race, ethnicity, employment]
This chapter focuses on getting off to a good start in the transition to adulthood by examining two key dimensions of the early transition to adulthood: educational attainment and avoiding early out-of-wedlock childbearing. It also assesses the role that families and schools play in eventual educational attainment. It then analyzes the educational attainment, employment, residential independence, childbearing, and marital status of individuals at ages twenty-eight and twenty-six, respectively. It also examines how educational attainment is associated with marriage and childbearing, as well as with work and living independently. Finally, the chapter discusses the association between some key social structural variables—race and ethnicity, parental education, family type, and the type of school—and these markers of adult transitions. (pages 292 - 319)
This chapter is available at:
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- D. Wayne Osgood, Gretchen Ruth, Jacquelynne S. Eccles, Janis E. Jacobs, Bonnie L. Barber
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748924.003.0010
[adulthood, adult transitions, young people, romantic relationships, residence, parenthood, employment, education, time use, marriage]
The transition to adulthood is most obviously characterized by movement from the roles of childhood and adolescence to those of adulthood. Youth leave their parents' homes to live on their own, they marry or cohabit with romantic partners, and they become parents themselves. They finish their schooling and take full-time employment. Completing most, if not all, of these role transitions is often considered to be the standard for reaching adulthood. However, this set of changes does not come as an organized “package” or standard sequence. Rather, young people today take many varied paths through these transitions. This chapter explores several role transitions by classifying respondents into groups on the basis of simple facts about adult transitions in five major role domains: romantic relationships, residence, parenthood, employment, and education. It examines patterns of time use, the degree to which respondents feel that they are carrying out various adult responsibilities, demographic characteristics of the individuals and their families of origin, and attitudes toward marriage and family, employment, and education. (pages 320 - 355)
This chapter is available at:
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- Mary Corcoran, Jordan Matsudaira
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748924.003.0011
[labor market, employment, adult transitions, adulthood, young adults, race, sex, economic inequality]
Moving out of the childhood bedroom, setting up one's own household, and paying for it with one's earnings have always been major markers of a successful transition to adulthood for men and are increasingly becoming ones for women. Achieving residential and financial independence is usually contingent on finding employment. This chapter asks whether adult transitions into the labor market have changed for young adults by comparing the economic trajectories of young adults born in the 1950s to those of young adults born in the 1960s. It also examines whether such changes have differed by race and sex and whether sex-based economic inequality, race-based economic inequality, and intergenerational income inequality have increased, decreased, or remained constant over time. (pages 356 - 395)
This chapter is available at:
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- Robert F. Schoeni, Karen E. Ross
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748924.003.0012
[adulthood, parents, young adults, money, time, shared housing, familial assistance, adult transitions, familial support, high-income families]
As their children enter young adulthood, parents may use their own financial advantages to support their children as they pursue higher education, to help their children establish independent households by helping them with down payments for their first homes, or to lessen the financial burden involved with having their own children. Further, other parental assets, such as home ownership or help caring for children, may be used to aid adult children in difficult life stages. This chapter examines direct material support received by young people from their parents during the transition to adulthood in the form of money, time, and shared housing. It explores how much familial assistance young adults receive during adult transitions; how much more assistance children in high-income families receive during these formative years; the pattern of familial support during the transition years, and whether the observed age pattern can be explained by life-course events such as getting married, buying a home, or attending school; and whether familial support has increased in the past few decades. (pages 396 - 416)
This chapter is available at:
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- John Schulenberg, Patrick M. O̓malley, Jerald G. BachMan, Lloyd D. Johnston
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748924.003.0013
[well-being, substance use, adolescence, early adulthood, adult transitions, marriage, parenthood, independence, young adults]
Evidence shows that well-being increases during the period between late adolescence and early adulthood, but questions remain about how widespread this increase may be and why it occurs and, more generally, how the course of well-being relates to the various diverse pathways out of high school. Substance use also tends to increase during this period, reaching its lifetime peak during the early twenties, depending on the given cohort and substance. Well-being and substance use, while not necessarily sharing a common etiology or developmental course across the life span, may increase among young adults during transition in part because of the new roles and contexts that provide more freedom and selection of opportunities. Using data from four waves of nationally representative U.S. panel data spanning ages eighteen to twenty-four, this chapter investigates early adult transitions and their relation to well-being and substance use. It analyzes the timing, sequencing, and covariation of social role transitions related to school and work, romantic involvement (specifically marriage), parenthood, and independence in the form of leaving the parental home. (pages 417 - 453)
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- John Mollenkopf, Mary C. Waters, Jennifer Holdaway, Philip Kasinitz
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748924.003.0014
[immigration, New York, immigrants, young people, adulthood, adult transitions, race, ethnicity, gender, Latin America]
The rapid pace of immigration over the past four decades has led to one out of every ten people living in the United States being foreign born, with another one in ten having an immigrant parent. These first and second-generation immigrants have settled mainly in the largest central cities of the most populous states. This trend poses the question of how the rising number of immigrants and their children may be affecting the ways in which young people—whether immigrants, children of immigrants, or children of native-born parents—may be making the transition into young adulthood. This chapter examines how young people with immigrant parents negotiate adult transitions in comparison with children of native parents with the same race, ethnicity, and gender. It focuses on New York and includes people whose parents migrated from the Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia, comparing them to those with native white, black, and Puerto Rican parents. (pages 454 - 498)
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- E. Michael Foster, Elizabeth J. Gifford
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748924.003.0015
[young people, public institutions, adulthood, adolescents, United States, foster care, juvenile justice, special education, adult transitions, children]
As young people begin to live on their own, their involvement with the public institutions that have been responsible for their education may end. For youth in public systems that serve children, the nature of their relationship to public policies and programs changes even more fundamentally. This chapter examines the transition to adulthood among adolescents leaving three child-serving systems in the United States: foster care, juvenile justice, and special education. It first describes the ways in which children enter those systems and the ways in which they exit them prior to late adolescence. It then looks at the ways in which adult transitions affect their involvement with those systems, reviews the literature on how these youth fare over time, and considers the special challenges they face. It also discusses their transition out of these programs, the services designed to facilitate it, and reviews what is known about the effectiveness of those services. The chapter concludes by evaluating these programs from a life-course perspective. (pages 501 - 533)
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- Richard A. Settersten Jr.
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226748924.003.0016
[social policy, work, education, family, institutions, adult transitions, early adult life, adulthood, safety nets, young people]
This chapter examines the intersection between early adult development and social policy in the spheres of work, education, and family. In particular, it asks how social policies and institutions regulate the structure and content of early adulthood and how well the models of and routes to early adult life promoted within institutions match the needs and everyday realities of young people. It also asks for whom the transition is helped or hindered in the process and how policies might be created or reformed to ease entry into and promote development during adulthood. It also considers some of the special challenges faced by vulnerable or at-risk populations, how better safety nets might be created, how more effective information and guidance might be provided, and how civic engagement might be fostered. The chapter concludes by highlighting some of the complexities associated with making social policy on adult transitions and with bridging science, policy, and practice. (pages 534 - 560)
This chapter is available at:
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