Problematic Passages to Adult Status: The Effect of Early Adulthood on Young Adult Educational and Occupational Attainment

Jeremy Staff, University of Minnesota

A diverse set of life changes mark the transition from adolescence to young adulthood, which include the completion of school, entry into full-time employment, economic and residential independence, family formation, and intimate cohabitation or marriage. In some instances, youth prematurely enter adult roles before they are considered developmentally and socially mature to for the responsibilities of young adulthood. Adolescent "transition proneness" (Jessor and Jessor, 1977) has also been referred to as a general syndrome of "precocious development" (Newcomb and Bentler, 1988), an indication of "hurried adolescence" (Safron, Schulenberg, and Bachman, in press) and a marker of "pseudoadulthood" (Greenberger and Steinberg, 1986), typified by intensive work hours, teenage pregnancy, school drop-out, residence away from parents, and increased sexual activity, drug and alcohol use, and deviance. Teenage pregnancy is a salient marker of a premature transition to adulthood. In the United States, 10% of all women between the ages of 15-19 (almost one million teenage women) become pregnant each year (Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1994; 1999). Recent cohorts of adolescents face the challenge of early family formation without the support of a partner. According to the National Center of Health Statistics, the percentage of unmarried teenage mothers increased dramatically in recent decades. Twenty-three percent of teenage mothers ages 15-17 were unmarried in 1950, while 84% were not married in 1996 (Ventura, Curtin, and Mathews, 1998). Intensive adolescent employment is an additional marker of a premature passage to adult status. In the United States, 75% of 12th grade students worked during the school year, and over one-third of these adolescents averaged more than twenty hours of work per week (Bachman, Safron, and Schulenberg, 2001). For many youth, early markers of "adulthood" shorten adolescence, indicated by the prevalence of adolescents employed in adult-like patterns, as well as the substantial number of teenage mothers. The problem behaviors associated with an early transition to adulthood, such as the higher than average rates of sexual intercourse, deviance, and substance use, are also recurrent among recent cohorts of U.S. youth: Fifty percent of teenagers reported sexual intercourse by age seventeen (Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1994, Synder and Sickmund, 1999). Furthermore, adolescents under the age of eighteen accounted for 40% of vandalism arrests, 26% of disorderly conducts, 33% of burglaries, 32% of larceny-theft arrests, 31% of motor vehicle thefts, and 53% of all arson arrests (Uniform Crime Reports, 2000). And finally, 17% of sixteen-year-old adolescents used marijuana, 33% smoked cigarettes, and 37% drank alcohol in the last thirty days (Snyder and Sickmund, 1999). In short, a sizable proportion of American youth partake in the "forbidden fruits" of adulthood, such as using alcohol, cigarettes, and sexual activity, as well as making up a disproportionate share of total arrests among all age groups.

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Updated 05/20/2006