The Post Secondary Years and Heterogeneous Pathways into Adulthood

Elder and Russell (2000) have noted that understanding change in young people's lives calls for choosing an "entry point", or developmental context, that allows us to ask questions about what happens next. The problem of choosing a point of entry is particularly thorny in research on young adulthood, a developmental period that we generally see as starting with the end of post-secondary schooling and continuing through most of the third decade of life (Arnett, 2000). The protracted end of adolescence and lengthy duration of the transition to adulthood has long been recognized and currently figures prominently in popular media attention to the new generation of "twixters," young adults in their twenties who are no longer adolescents and by society's standards not yet adults (Grossman, 2005). Inadequate employment situations and the resulting financial dependence on families are central to sociological work on the problems of these "incompletely launched" adults (Schnaiberg & Goldenberg, 1989). Furstenberg (2000), for example, has reported that by age 30, just over half of the most recent cohorts studied in the National Longitudinal Survey had worked for 2 or more years in a full time, year-around job.

This empirical portrait suggests to us constraints on the usefulness of existing research frameworks concerned with mature social roles, such as having continuous full time employment or being married, as an entry point for research on the link between mental health and young adult life situations during this transitional period. Large numbers of young adults have not achieved any of these stable and health-promoting adult identities and attainments. Moreover, taking a population viewpoint, young adults undertake similar activities at different times and dissimilar activities during the same time frame. A recent analysis of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY 79) (Mouw, 2005) indicates that in these cohorts there are sixty two distinct sequences representing the temporal relationships among leaving home, finishing school, starting work, getting married and having children.

Early efforts to grapple with this heterogeneity centered on the problem of non-normative or premature transitions to adulthood, as illustrated in research on teenage parents (Furstenberg, Brooks-Gunn & Morgan, 1987), leaving unanswered questions about the lives of the large and heterogeneous group of young people who make normative or more socially acceptable transitions. Recent approaches seek to include a broader segment of the population under the investigative lens and are approaching the issue of heterogeneity through identifying the pathways that appear conceptually important in addition to those representing significant numbers of young adults. Osgood and associates, for example, used latent class analysis to describe pathways of transition in a longitudinal sample of young adults who have been followed since early adolescence (Osgood, Ruth, Eccles, Jacobs, & Barber, 2005). Their resulting descriptive typology of pathways to adulthood includes fast starters (those having adult social roles), parents without careers, educated with partner, educated singles, working singles, and slow starters. They conclude that by age 24, most of their sample is "unsettled" in work and family roles, fitting Arnett's definition of emergent adulthood.

Having mapped some features and challenges in studying young adults in transition, we have not yet suggested how these initial descriptive efforts to gain an entry point into this developmental period can be linked to a focus on mental health. In the following sections we discuss the three themes of transitional environments, cumulative adversity and turning points as central components of current efforts to accomplish this objective.

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