Monday, 25 June 2012

Almost an adult? Transitions into adulthood changing for young people today

The transition from adolescence to adulthood, from school to work, and from dependence to independence is taking place over a longer period of time than in previous generations and is becoming increasingly complex.

Blogs and twitter feeds are busy today following the announcement of possible changes to the housing benefit for under 25s. Parents and carers are increasingly expected to assume responsibility for their children well until their mid-twenties, with most social security policies measuring independence from 18 years. Yet this assumption contradicts legislation which can put young people at risk. For example, 16 - 18 year olds are not entitled to social security benefits such as Jobseeker's Allowance in Scotland, but young people over the age of 16 have no legal right to live in their parents' home (Jones and Bell, 2000). Emerging adults themselves define adulthood in terms of personal development, life experiences and challenges, rather than age (Arnett, 2004; Devadason, 2007).

Review of evidence by the About Families project highlights a number of key pressures facing emerging adults today:

·         Labour markets: An increasingly fragmented labour market has led to a decreased demand for low-qualified, minimum-aged school leavers, leaving young people feeling they do have the competencies and skills required (Kahn et al., 2011). 
·         Independence: Low wages, unemployment and tighter housing markets can delay leaving the parental home and forming relationships (Ermisch, 1999).
·         Unemployment: Youth unemployment is more sensitive to economic developments than adult unemployment: it falls more quickly in times of expansion and rises more sharply in times of recession (cited in Furlong and Cartmel 2007).
·         Education: A lack of available jobs makes educational options more attractive (Furlong and Cartmel, 2007).
·         Experience of poverty: Young people who have experienced poverty are less likely to ever leave their parental homes and more likely to repeatedly return to and leave the family home (De Marco and Cosner Berzin, 2008; Wister et al., 1997).
·         Socio-economic: Young people from middle-class backgrounds, who are more likely to benefit from higher education, tend to take longer to transition into adulthood. However, the high levels of practical and financial support they receive means they are able to move into independent living arrangements sooner (including student accommodation). On the other hand, young people from working-class backgrounds are more likely to move into a couple-household or have children earlier. They are less likely to go to university, and if they do so they are more likely to live with their parents (Heath, 2008).
·         Rurality: Young people in rural areas are likely to leave their parental home earlier than their peers in cities by moving into urban areas, but they remain financially dependent on their parents for longer (Heath, 2008).
·         Equality issues: Moving to independent housing is especially difficult for young people with disabilities, young people who are leaving care and gay and lesbian young people (Heath, 2008):
o   Disabled young people are more likely to live with their parents and to rely on parental support for longer.
o   Young people leaving care tend to move to independent households sooner, but face particular difficulties due to a lack of social support.
o   Gay and lesbian young people often leave their parental homes earlier due to disputes about their sexuality. Homelessness is common, and housing services would benefit from considering the needs of non-heterosexual groups

Many emerging adults express feelings of being ‘in-between’ adolescence and adulthood. They define adulthood in terms of development and life experiences – eg financial autonomy, responsibilities for self and others, rather than defining their adult status by age.

This review was carried out under our Evidence Request Bank. A full response, with references, will be published on this site shortly: Please email for references in the meantime.

The evidence bank is open to all partners and organisations we work with. For more information on how to get involved please contact Karen Mountney,  


  1. There's been a lot of criticism of Arnett, including what people see as his focus on middle class young people and dismissal of some working class experiences. He generalises about experiences and assumes a whole lot of equality. A useful reference if people are interested in exploring more is Cote J. & Bynner J.M. 2008, “Changes in the transition to adulthood in the UK and Canada: the role of structure and agency in emerging adulthood.” Journal of Youth Studies, vol. 11, no. 3, pp. 251-268 . They pay particular attention to the exclusion processes in workplace and education settings that prevent access to the ‘developmental processes’ that Arnett associates with ‘emerging adulthood’. They argue against the concept of "emerging adulthood" and assert instead that changing economic conditions have led to a lowering of the social status of young people that contributes to increasingly precarious trajectories and the decline of social markers of adulthood. They make a very convincing case that, even for the midldle classs students whom he researches, Arnett mistakes what are really coping mechanisms of some young people for freely chosen options to delay their entry into adulthood. They also correctly make the general point that sociologists need to extend our understanding of social heterogeneity.

    Related to these themes also, I'm currently interested in Goodwin and O'Connor's (2005, ‘Exploring Complex Transitions: Looking Back at the “Golden Age” of From School to Work’, Sociology, vol. 39, no. 2, pp. 201–220) assertions that transitions for young people in the 1960s were as linear and uncomplicated as present-day convention would have us believe. From examination of data from a 'lost' 1960s research project exploring shool-work transitions and follow-up work they have undertaken with some of the original participants, they conclude that earlier research has understated the complexities of young people's experiences, mainly because 1960s sociologists were more interested instead to explore structural issues, such as class and gender.

  2. Many thanks to Eric for his comments.

    The full report also makes some of the points that Eric raised. We have now published the full report on the 'About Families' website at:

    In relation to Eric's comments, here are relevant sections from the full report:

    Different approaches to researching young people are taken in the UK and North America. Research in the UK tends to focus on ‘transitions to adulthood’ or ‘youth transitions’ and considers how structural issues impact on the lives of individuals. Research in the USA and Canada tends to use the concept of ‘emerging adulthood’ which focuses on characteristics of the individual. The concept of emerging adulthood has been criticized for not acknowledging structural elements: for example, issues of social disadvantage are ignored because emerging adults’ life transitions are explained through their individual choices.

    Extended adolescence can feature a range of characteristics which overlap with, and influence, each other. These include uncertainty over employment, prolonged education, living in and returning to the parental home, non-marital relationships, having children later and lifestyle. Moving to independence can be particularly complicated for young people in rural areas, leaving care, with disabilities, from ethnic minority backgrounds, and for gay and lesbian young people.

    It would be useful to conduct further research into how public policies and extended adolescence interact. While some recent research tracks the impact of the economic recession on extended adolescence, there is little research on how public policies shape the lives of adolescents on the one hand (e.g., welfare policies) and how, on the other hand, public policies need to respond to cultural changes (e.g. delayed family formation, prolonged education) of youth transition in order to provide relevant support to young adults and their parents.