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When Do We Become Adults: Essay

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction to Adulthood and Its Traditional Markers
  2. The Shift in Educational and Economic Milestones
  3. Changing Trends in Marriage and Family Formation
  4. Housing and Employment Challenges for Contemporary Youth
  5. Emerging Adulthood: A New Phase of Life
  6. Personal and Societal Perspectives on Adulthood

Introduction to Adulthood and Its Traditional Markers

Traditionally adulthood is associated with biological markers such as when intellectual and physical maturity has been met, as well as attaining key milestones such as finishing education, having a family, and stable employment. However today, these markers are arguably not as important, this essay will evaluate and discuss whether individualistic markers of adulthood may be more relevant for contemporary youth rather than traditional ones.

The Shift in Educational and Economic Milestones

Traditionally it is perceived that certain social markers of adulthood had to be attained by a certain time age in a person’s life. For example, the model of the ‘big five’ demonstrates the “traditional social markers of adulthood: (i) finishing school, which once meant high school but now generally means higher education; (ii) finding a job, (iii) leaving home, (iv) getting married, and (v) having children.” (Settersten et al., 2015, p.3). In the past this was generally a smooth transition to adulthood, however today there is a significant difference in these trends with people reaching and completing these stages in their life later and later. For instance, the average age of marriage has considerably increased, likewise, the age people decide to begin to have children and start and finish their education has all increased. All of these things can be seen to have an impact on individuals' transition to adulthood and when an individual is viewed and considered an adult.

While it is evident that there have been these key changes, it is essential to look at what contributes to this. Firstly, education arguably plays a major role when looking at the differences in trends. For example, in the 1970s there were 621,000 students in higher education, compared to in 201819 there were 2.4 million students (Bolton, 2021). As a result, many people are in education for longer than in the past and may rely on their families more throughout their time in education which can therefore be seen as hindering the transition to adulthood. Furthermore, there is an increase in educational opportunities with more women in education today, this, therefore, leads them to have better career prospects than in the past. Due to this, women are now more economically independent and therefore do not need to get married for economic support and dependence. Because of this women may be purposely delaying marriage and having children to give them time to establish themselves in their careers, this could also be said to be true for other young people who want to have a secure and stable career before thinking and deciding to have children and get married.

Changing Trends in Marriage and Family Formation

Additionally, not only has there been a significant rise in cohabitation compared to the past there has also been an increase in the length of time that couples cohabit for. This shows how many people are postponing or choosing not to get married at all. Several reasons could be examined here to explain why. Firstly, society and the family are becoming more diverse with there being many different family structures and personal relationships, as a result, marriage does not fit or suit all these relationships or family structures. As well as this, secularisation can arguably play a role in why couples may choose to cohabit rather than get married with the declining stigma around couples who choose to live together but not legally marry. According to the Office for National Statistics (2018), ‘The number of cohabiting couple families continues to grow faster than married couples and lone-parent families, with an increase of 25.8% over the decade 2008 to 2018.’ A rise in divorce could also contribute to this as people may no longer view marriage as desirable. These factors could account for why marriage and children are no longer a key aspect of an individual's life and something that isn’t on their agenda, as a result for many young people this could mean that it is no longer considered a marker of adulthood.

Furthermore, the traditional markers of adulthood may not be as achievable for contemporary youth, and why individualistic markers may be more useful and relevant. For example, the significant rise in house prices makes it harder for young people to get on the property ladder. According to the Office for Official statistics (2020) in January 2020, the average price of a house in England was £247,000 compared to the 1960s when the average house price was £2,530 (gov.UK, 2012). As well as this rise in zero-hour, temporary and part-time contracts means that individuals are no longer in stable and secure full-time employment. Instead, individuals may go in and out of different types of work and education, with the rise in the service sector and the decline of the manufacturing sectors could be said to be a reason for this. As a result, this could mean that individuals may have to postpone having children and marriage as they are not yet financially stable enough and therefore can mean that individuals are not able to reach these traditional markers because of this.

Housing and Employment Challenges for Contemporary Youth

When looking at the transition to adulthood Arnett’s concept of ‘emerging adulthood, is important to look at. He refers to emerging adulthood as being the period between adolescence and adulthood. He notes that we don't have to look too far back in history to see the shift from individuals reaching certain markers that may equate to becoming an adult. For example, in 1960 it was typical for a 21-year-old to be married and have children, and be in full-time employment however today individuals of the same age are still in education, perhaps in and out of different jobs, with the idea of marriage and parenthood for many being in the distant future. (Arnett, 2014, p.1). Arnett coined the term emerging adulthood, as he argues there is a distinct difference between this stage and adolescence and adulthood:

‘This period is not simply an “extended adolescence” because it is very different from adolescence- much freer from parental control, much more a period of independent exploration. Nor is it really “young adulthood”, since this term implies that an early stage of adulthood has been reached, whereas most young people in their twenties have not made the transitions historically associated with adult status.’ (Arnett, 2014, p.2)

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Emerging Adulthood: A New Phase of Life

For Arnett, there are five main features of emerging adulthood: the age of identity explorations, the age of instability, self-focus, feeling in-between where individuals are stuck between being an adolescent or an adult and where they fit in, and finally the age of possibilities. He argues that emerging adulthood is an important feature as it allows young people to try different opportunities in their life, particularly in terms of work and love, with no constraints and the freedom to do this. (Arnett, 2014, p.8)

However, Arnett’s idea of emerging adulthood hasn’t been able to withstand critique from others. For example, Côté (2014, p.3) notes that a ‘concern is that his formulation is seriously skewed by assumptions that do a disservice to many of the young people currently facing serious social structural obstacles and poor economic opportunities during this prolonged transition to adulthood. Therefore, Arnett’s strong emphasis on white middle-class individuals and generalizing all young people's experiences as being the same has been put into question. For example, the idea that emerging adulthood is a time when young people can explore any avenue, they want is restricted to those who can actually afford to do it, many don't have the privilege of doing this. As a result, it is important to take into account that individuals' experiences of the transition into adulthood may be different based on their social, cultural, and economic backgrounds.

This is supported by Carr et al (2011) who from their interviews of people in their 20s and 30s, found that individuals experience a different pathway to adulthood. One participant, Tom, decided to take a traditional route, he got married at 23, marrying his girlfriend from high school. For Tom, this was the normal and logical next step after finishing education and getting a job, ‘getting married is a part of a schedule of goals that are supposed to follow’ (Carr and Kefalas, 2011, p.52). However, taking this traditional route may be due to living expenses being lower where he was from, allowing them to be financially independent, meaning that the progression to adulthood in a traditional sense is more achievable. Furthermore, in the rural Midwest where he was from it was common to follow these traditional markers to adulthood, therefore social factors may also play a key role in the pathway to adulthood.

On the other hand, Jake, from Minnesota, had financial support from his family which helped him through a prestigious law school, allowing him to focus on his career before eventually thinking about marriage. Compared to Tom he did not start to think about the next step in his life like marriage until he was 30, he said this was because he was “in no rush to get married to the wrong person.” (Swartz, Hartmann and Mortimer, 2011, p.88) However, participants who lacked financial support or lived-in expensive cities, without economic means found the transition to adulthood harder. However, participants who lived in urban areas found the pathway to adulthood less predictable. Holdway (2011, p.110-111) noted that ‘Others did not get to college until their late 20 and early 30s, after working or raising children. Many continued to live at home until well into their 20s, and some stayed even after having their own children.’

What does adulthood mean today? While I have discussed what the traditional markers of adulthood are, it is important to show how that fits today. To do this, it is essential to find out what adulthood means to the ones currently on the path to becoming an adult. This is a question asked in Pitti’s study of what adulthood meant to young people, their response to what they considered an adult was someone who has responsibility and the recognition of being able to deal with duties by their peers. As well as this, independence is where individuals have the autonomy to decide what they want for themselves without input from others such as parents. For them, this is what distinguishes individuals from adolescence where they didn't yet have this freedom from parents and their control to adulthood. (Pitti, 2017, p.7-8)

Similarly, in Arnett's 1994 study of college-aged students, he found a similar response. Traditional markers of adulthood such as marriage, completing education, and having children were no longer considered important in whether an individual was seen to be an adult. Instead, qualities such as being independent and having the freedom to make their own choices, having a relationship with parents where they are seen and considered as an equal, and individuals accepting responsibility for their own actions and consequences were what they associated with being an adult.

Consequently, it can be argued traditional markers of the transition to adulthood may no longer be significant to contemporary youth as each person's experiences and the factors that may affect the path to adulthood are different. Society is different today than it was in the past when these traditional markers were more relevant. However, despite traditional markers no longer being as significant, this doesn't mean they do not play any role at all. Some people may combine traditional markers with more individualistic ones, for example, they may still see getting married and having children as signifying being an adult but combined with other markers that Arnett discusses from his research such as having the freedom to make decisions that suit them and their life without involvement from parents.

Personal and Societal Perspectives on Adulthood

In conclusion, it is evident that factors that contemporary youth face today are different from the past, therefore, meaning their transition to adulthood and when they meet specific life stages are not the same with traditional markers being perceived as not as desirable or achievable. Likewise, the transition to adulthood is not the same for everyone, therefore individualistic markers, or perhaps a hybrid of the two may be more relevant for contemporary youth.

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