May 15, 2003 – Vol. 22 No. 16

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    When do we feel grown up? NORC found consensus for seven transitions in ‘Coming of Age in 21st-Century America’

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Although school graduation marks the most important milestone in maturing, most Americans feel that becoming an official grown-up is an involved process that takes more than five years, according to a study by the National Opinion Research Center.

    The study, “Coming of Age in 21st-Century America: Public Attitudes Towards the Importance and Timing of Transition to Adulthood,” examines seven stages of transition: completing education, being employed full-time, becoming financially independent, living independently of parents, getting married, having a child, and supporting a family.

    “There is a large degree of consensus across social groups on the relative importance of the seven transitions,” wrote author Tom Smith, Director of NORC’s General Social Survey. “The only notable pattern of differences is on views about supporting a family, having a child and getting married. Older adults and the widowed and married rate these as more important than younger adults or never-married adults rate them.

    “This probably reflects in large part a shift in values across generations away from traditional family values,” Smith added.

    The study report found that completing an education was the most valued step toward adulthood (73 percent found it extremely important). The other transitions deemed important followed this order: being employed full-time (61 percent), supporting a family (60 percent), being financially independent (47 percent), living independently of parents (29 percent), being married (19 percent), having a child (16 percent).

    The report, based on the 2002 General Social Survey of 1,398 people, also determined when people generally expect young people to complete the transitions. Becoming self-supporting is the first step (20.9 years old), living independently of parents (21.1), having a full-time job (21.2), completing schooling (22.3), being able to financially support a family (24.5), getting married (25.7), and having a child (26.2).

    Although there was general agreement among most groups, there were differences based on education level and age:

    • College graduates are more likely than high school graduates to value living independently of parents as a sign of adulthood.
    • Being able to support a family was favored more strongly by adults 65 and older as a sign of adulthood than it was by those under age 30.
    • Marriage is considered more important among Hispanics than among non-Hispanics.
    • Jewish and Catholic individuals were more likely to value childbearing as a sign of adulthood.
    • Blacks favored earlier transitions than did whites; and Jews favored later transitions than did any other religious groups.

    The General Social Survey is an in-person survey of a representative sample of Americans over age 18. It is conducted every one to two years with support from the National Science Foundation. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation supported the study on perceptions of adulthood.