Introduction: The price of independence: The economics of early adulthood

Sheldon Danziger, Cecilia Elena Rouse

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingForeword/postscript

4 Scopus citations


The chapters in this volume document that it is taking young men longer to secure well-paying, stable employment that will allow them to support a family-the critical economic outcome in the transition to adulthood. In contrast, women are better able to support a family on their own than ever before, even though their economic status continues to lag that of men. Many commentators have argued that decreased employment prospects, lower wages, higher housing prices, and increased debt have made it more difficult for young people, especially men, to assume the responsibilities that have traditionally characterized adulthood. Taken together, the chapters in this volume suggest a limited role for such economic factors in explaining recent trends in other young adult outcomes. These new studies confirm that changes in the economy over the last several decades have affected individual decisions to establish an independent household, marry, have children, and complete education. However, the delay in these markers of the transition to adulthood that has occurred in the United States and in most industrialized countries over the past several decades does not appear to have been primarily driven by changing economic conditions. The delay is more likely to have been caused by changes in the social norms of young people, their parents, and society in general; changes in young adults' expectations regarding female labor force participation, marriage, and childbearing; and changes in opportunities for combining schooling with work or family roles. It is possible that some of the factors analyzed here will have a greater overall impact on the outcome of recent cohorts of young adults at later ages in the life course. Consider the growing prison population. The evidence suggests that former inmates are significantly less likely to find stable employment, to marry, and to reach the other markers of adulthood. Thus, as rates of incarceration continue to increase (particularly in some subpopulations), fewer young people may ever achieve all of the traditional markers of adulthood. If these future generations are less able to care for themselves and their children, this responsibility will increasingly fall on the rest of society. As such, there may well be an ever more important role for workforce development programs and basic education programs in prisons and for substance abuse and reentry programs for soon-to-be released prisoners. Further, while the current media attention regarding the debt of young adults appears to have neglected the distinction between debt to finance schooling and housing, which helps build long-run human capital and wealth, and debt to finance current consumption, the increasing availability of easy credit may become a problem for future generations. Finally, although earlier generations were more likely to stay with a single employer for periods lasting at least ten years, today's youth are likely to hold multiple "long" jobs. Whether this change will result in substantially less lifetime income and wealth and lower the ability of today's young adults to pay down their debts remains to be seen. There are many uncertainties regarding the long-term impact of the delayed attainment of the markers of adulthood. However, evidence from Europe suggests that as these changes become the norm, at a minimum the life satisfaction of young people will increase. As discussed by Newman and Aptekar (chapter 8), European youth who live with their parents have lower life satisfaction than youth who live independently, holding other factors constant. However, in countries where higher proportions of young adults live at home, this negative effect is attenuated. These data suggest that social anxiety declines when living with one's parents becomes widespread enough to be considered socially acceptable rather than an indicator of personal failure. Thus, while at the moment many express concern about the changing life course, ultimately it may become accepted as the norm. There are many questions that could not be addressed in a single volume. Our hope is that the new research presented here will stimulate a long and careful examination of the impact of economic conditions on the transition to adulthood.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Price of Independence
Subtitle of host publicationThe Economics of Early Adulthood
PublisherRussell Sage Foundation
Number of pages23
ISBN (Print)9780871543165
StatePublished - 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


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