Sunday, June 13, 2010

Prolonged Adolescence

Last week we were discussing the creation of childhood and adolescence from industrialism in Intro to Sociology. I mentioned the fact that while childhood may be shrinking these days (the "hurried child syndrome"), adolescence may be expanding. It's not uncommon to delay becoming an adult by prolonging such traditional transitions as completing an education, establishing a career, marriage and family.

This article in the NYT, discussing Princeton's Future of Children project, has some interesting data confirming what is a prolonged adolescence.

People between 20 and 34 are taking longer to finish their educations, establish themselves in careers, marry, have children and become financially independent, said Frank F. Furstenberg, who leads the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, a team of scholars who have been studying this transformation.

National surveys reveal that an overwhelming majority of Americans, including younger adults, agree that between 20 and 22, people should be finished with school, working and living on their own. But in practice many people in their 20s and early 30s have not yet reached these traditional milestones.

Marriage and parenthood — once seen as prerequisites for adulthood — are now viewed more as lifestyle choices, according to a new report released by Princeton University and the Brookings Institution.

For the first time, a majority of mothers, 54 percent, have a college education, up from 41 percent in 1990. “That is a huge change,” said Andrew J. Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University.

The median age for a first marriage was 23 in 1980; now it is 27 for men and 26 for women, the highest on record. A recent report by the Pew Research Center found that in the past two decades, a broad trend toward delaying motherhood that stretches across all races and ethnic and income groups has also taken hold.

For many, marriage has disappeared as a definition of traditional adulthood, as more and more younger people live together. Today 40 percent of births are to unmarried mothers, an increase from 28 percent in 1990. At the same time, more women are remaining childless, either by choice or circumstance. Twenty percent of women in their 40s do not have children.

The implications of these trends are enormous on a number of fronts. While it's generally thought that delaying marriage leads to lower divorce rates, the increase in single motherhood presents disadvantages for children, including higher drop out and juvenile delinquency rates.

Also, while the number of childless women in their 40's is now 20%, the number of men in a similar situation is 15% or lower. Meaning, women who postpone marriage and family for career often find themselves childless not by choice, but by circumstance. For men, pursuing a career and having kids later in life doesn't present the same social (or some would argue, patriarchal) dilemma.

Nevertheless, these trends and decisions are re-making society and culture right in front of our eyes. While the stages of life such as childhood, adolescence, adulthood, etc. may seem arbitrary and mere creations of the culture, they still have implications for how a society and culture functions, and fundamentally, what it means to be a social being.

No comments: