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America's Young Adults: Special Issue, 2014

Conceptual Framework

The transition to adulthood is a complex journey. Just as early childhood is marked by certain developmental milestones, there are developmental changes and events that mark the transition to adulthood. In the United States, the age of legal adulthood varies by state but is typically 18 years, after which they are regarded as independent, self-sufficient, and responsible under the law. However, although no longer adolescents, many individuals ages 18–24 are "emerging adults," who are not fully independent and have not completed the transition to adult roles in families, households, or the workforce.

Transitioning to adulthood is generally signaled by particular life events that are markers of independence, including finishing school, starting a full-time job, leaving the home, getting married, or becoming a parent for the first time.1 In the early 1900s, these events became increasingly standardized and age related; people were more likely to follow a particular order of events and a particular set of ages became associated with each event. From the mid-1900s until about the 1980s, these events occurred at increasingly younger ages and in a shorter span of time; the transition to adulthood was condensed into just a few years. In contrast, during the last few decades, social and economic circumstances have changed significantly, extending the transition period during which youth become firmly established and settled into adulthood.2 There has also been increasing variability in the order and timing of these events; young adults are now much more likely to forge their own individual path through the transition to adulthood.

Because they may be entering committed relationships, seeking and finishing higher education, launching their careers or work life, serving their country in the military, creating their own households or starting their own families, and engaging in civic or community activities, young adults are at a significant and pivotal period of life. While this can be an exciting, growth-filled time of life, it is also possible that young adults are experiencing economic hardships, becoming disassociated from constructive activities such as work or school, dealing with long-lasting medical or mental health issues, or engaging in risky behaviors. As adults under the law, they no longer have the advantages of programmatic support systems for juveniles that were available during their childhood and adolescence. This age group is undergoing tremendous social transformations, and it is a challenge for research to fully address the wide range of issues. This year's Special Issue reports on the characteristics of young adults, the current opportunities and challenges they face, and the implications of possible trajectories for their futures and their families.

1 Shanahan, M.J. (2000). Pathways to adulthood in changing societies. Annual Review of Sociology, 26, 667–92.

2 Stevens, D.A. (1990). New evidence on the timing of early life course transitions: United States 1900–1980. Journal of Family History, 15(2), 163–178.