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  • WE'RE GOING TO THE DOGS! February 27


DEP 5068-01



This guide examines:

The case for studying adults approximately age 20-40
(Given what we now know about the "Teenage Brain" maybe we should make this 23-40.)

Revisiting development versus birth generation issues

Role changes, role growth and role conflict

Demographics and changes in family formation and marriage

Is it REALLY all downhill from here?

ANCIENT SAYING: "There is nothing that youth and skill can offer that age and treachery cannot overcome."


Why study adults?

Much of the material covered by your readings and in human development more generally concentrates on the lifespan through adolescence. Perhaps that's because so much physical and cognitive growth occurs during those times. And, many students in a lifespan development course want to work with children and adolescents in elementary, middle or high school, or during college.

Another strong possibility is that adults past college are no longer "captive audiences." It is a shame to believe that the socialization foci on children, adolescents and college students occurs just because they are free participants for the most part and convenient research participants. Nevertheless, it is costly to locate and study adults outside an academic setting and adults often feel that they have less time to participate in research studies. The challenge to scholars may be to use some of the increasing number of national longitudinal data bases (see ICPSR, the Roper Center, and the Pew Center for People and the Press--all "misnomers" in terms of the variety of data archives they support), or to study adults in non-random "natural settings" (e.g., neighborhoods, office centers, religious congregations) for more insight.

Life is long and one's career choices can change (I entered college as a short-story and poetry-writing folksinger).There are several excellent reasons for studying adults.

For example, education is a lifelong pursuit for Americans as I have noted earlier. Each year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, about one-half of adults take some kind of course or training. Further, we change careers on the average more than once and change jobs, especially in early adulthood, much more often than that. And, of course, today's grownups are the ones to socialize tomorrow's youth, as parents, teachers, counselors, pastors, and other youth workers.


This guide addresses Young or Early Adulthood, demarcated these days approximately by ages 20 to 40. You may have seen a cutoff for young adulthood in your prior courses far earlier than age 40--but that's really no longer the case. Partially the period of young adulthood has expanded because life expectancy is over 20 years longer than it was a century ago. Given that the typical American born today can expect to live, on the average, into her or his late 70s, it is foolish to begin "middle age" at age 35. Not only do Americans live longer, but they are generally in better health than their age counterparts from even 50 or 60 years ago. More extensive vaccines, better nutrition, better education (e.g., cigarette smoking declines dramatically with educational level while regular exercise increases), and advances in medical care have led to pronouncements such as "40 is the new 30".



The same forces that have contributed to greater longevity among Americans, and greater health and vitality at most ages, caution us, once again, to avoid confounding age with birth cohort. This holds true, of course, at all ages. Recall that menarche occurs at younger ages now than it did several decades ago, so that many female fifth graders are more akin to young women than they are to the "little girls" of a couple of generations earlier.

It's dangerous to take current data from cross-sectional survey research studies, where all ages may be queried at one time point, and then interpolate it to those who are currently young or middle-aged as predictions of the life course. For example, consider work or career choices, a critcal set of role selections typically paramount among young adults. Much of the young adult's career exploration and choices depends on the academic or  job market prevalent when the individual begins searching. The academic market may depend on the economy (individuals often return to school when the job market is poor), the availability of academic funding, or evolving job requirements (for example, most urban and suburban police departments now want candidates with at least an Associate's, and preferably a Bachelor's, degree). The job market at a particular time point is influenced by industrial trends (e.g., "outsourcing"), financial status (e.g., recession), labor supply (always too much if you are a "baby boomer"), and attitudes about gender (married women were "first fired" during the 1930s Depression) among other dimensions. Thus, "Gen Y" or "Millenials" do not have the same labor market faced by Baby Boomers at the same age, and we can't naively use the retrospective job histories of Baby Boomers to interpolate to or predict the actions of this more recent generation. On the other hand, taking age, educational, stratification, and labor market factors into account may allow us to make much better predictions for current and future generations.

As we study the various ages, the cross-sectional study versus birth cohort analysis issue becomes even more important. As today's Baby Boomers edge into seniorhood, they are generally healthier and much better educated than their parents' generation at the same ages. On the other hand, Baby Boomers have faced steeper job competition than their parents did (except for the Depression), and are apparently much worse savers with greater material appetites. Baby Boomers also were more likely to have their children later and to be caretakers for aging parents than their own parents' experiences. Thus, for example, I would expect aging Baby Boomers to have a greater interest in travel than their parents at the same age--but to have more family responsibilities and less money to be able to indulge themselves in travel.


Role changes throughout adulthood are more plentiful and dramatic than most of what occurs during childhood. In most industrial or post-industrial countries, children and adolescents are students and a son or a daughter. Some may work at relatively low-skilled jobs. (The situation is far different in more agrarian or early industrializing countries, where child labor is much more frequent.) Large shifts occur when adolescents enter middle school or high school, of course, and academic work becomes more challenging, but the individuals are still students and someone's children. Among other things, it means that students are relatively low on "the totem pole" or social hierarchy, receiving orders rather than giving them, having adults contribute considerable amounts of the structure in their lives.

Minimally, a role is a set of rights, duties, and scripts (prescriptives and prerogatives) attached to a specific social position. Roles transcend individuals: anyone who occupies a specific role is expected to learn and display a minimal level of its scripts and duties. Some role requirements are codified and formal, others are informal. Although latitude often exists in how to play a role, there are also usually minimal defining criteria. For example, at a minimum, parents are expected to see that their young children are well-nourished physically, are raised in a safe environment and are socialized for basic behavior. Past these basics mothers and fathers imprint their own personal stamp on parenthood, taken from their own families, media portrayals of various kinds, and their own ideas.

In contrast to children and adolescents, adults undergo a steady series of role acquisitions (e.g., spouse), role strains and overloads (the "soccer parent"), role transitions(e.g., from school to work), role disjunctures and role losses (e.g., retirement, divorce, widowhood). Some of these are marked by role ceremonies in most societies (e.g., weddings, baptisms or brisses, funerals), others (e.g., retirement parties) depend on your particular milieu (some companies have them, some don't), and still others, particularly if stigma appears to be involved in some way, lack a ritual ceremony to date (e.g., most divorces). Role ceremonies formally demarcate the end of one role and the beginning of the next, announcing to society at large that the individual's role status has changed (e.g., from singleton to spouse or student to graduate). The idea behind many ceremonies is to ease the transition from one role or set of roles to another, and to prepare the role occupant for new experiences in a more structured way.

However, because role ceremonies can change one's set of expectations, they can also make life "more difficult." For example, young couples who cohabited prior to marriage often had more egalitarian divisions of household labor during cohabitation than during marriage, when the wife is apparently expected to shoulder a larger share of housework. Her share of housework grows again, when the couple becomes parents. Research indicates that these more lopsided divisions occur in part because of the expectations the couple holds for the roles of husband and wife, or mother and father. 

The role transitions that adults experience are central to "love and work," the two major commitments you recall that that Freud saw as critical to individuals. This is especially true for young adults who are in the process of making choices that can have lifetime repercussions. Most who do marry will marry between the ages of 20 and 40 (many males closer to 40) and experience (at least) their first child. Nearly all will enter the job market. Each set of choices may bring benefits and constraints.

The "two-career" couple will typically enjoy a higher standard of living than most single career familial counterparts but will need to compromise and be creative about maximizing both sets of career opportunities. If one person's career takes precedence, depending on location the other partner may find they have no opportunities for advancement--or perhaps very few employment opportunities at all.

The age at marriage, age of children, whether children were born with or without two parents present, or divorce or partner history, all have ramifications that can last for several years. Those who marry early on the average have more children but have higher rates of divorce (if they married at all). Single parents with children tend to have the most economic problems and greater logistical problems with time allocation. Divorce initially is a financial and social setback for both partners, no matter who wanted it, and the effects are greater the more the couple had in common (children, assets, etc). Divorce also means less exposure to pregnancy on the average, thus lowering completed family size.

Where and how one enters the economic marketplace can influence one's entire career future. And, of course, one's educational preparation strongly affects career chances. The boy who dropped out of high school may find construction work financially satisfying in the short run (in several markets, even relatively unskilled construction labor can earn at least $25 an hour) but that's a "young man's job." If he decides to change jobs or return to academia to earn at least one degree, he may find these changes extremely difficult, especially if the young man married and/or became a parent during this period. Recall that 60% of American adults do not have ANY post-secondary degree, including an Associate's or Vocational degree (2008 estimates). Although the college educated young adult has more career choices, much will depend on her or his geographical location and the available job market.


Role conflict and role strain often become critical issues for young adults for the first time in their lives. The number of roles that young women and men acquire multiplies during these years so that the individual may simultaneously be working full-time, completing a graduate degree, becoming a spouse and perhaps a parent or step-parent. If you work with young adults, expect to see several of the issues below popping up.

Social roles typically emerge from groups, from the specialized divisions of labor and interlocking positions that even the most rudimentary groups tend to create. In formal organizations, such as companies, social roles become positions and people are recruited to fill them. However, even in families, which comprise a mix of formal demands (e.g., marriage is a state-sanctioned activity, as is recording the birth or adoption of children) and informal expectations (in the U.S., we expect husbands and wives to marry for love or that children should be "planned"), relatively routinized divisions of labor emerge.

When roles are arranged in a hierarchy, we have what are called stratified social systems. When roles conflict in a variety of ways, we have role conflict. 

First, recall that our social roles become an important part of our self-identify. When individuals are asked to write out "20 statements" in response to the stimulus "Who am I?" they frequently mention "son" or "daughter", "spouse", "student" (even "anxious student" or "good student"), or sports team member. Most of us belong to several different groups and we occupy several different roles as a result. We might be simultaneously a student, a worker, a spouse, a parent, a neighborhood volunteer, member of a religious congregation, and active in a hobby organization. Because we occupy so many roles, and because different people have different expectations for the same role, roles can create stress for several reasons.
We cope with interrole conflict in several ways:

We may segregate or compartmentalize roles (e.g., keep work away from your family; be an ogre at work, a loving parent at home--or vice-versa).

We may use role specialization (e.g., in our household Dad is the food expert and grocery shopper; Mom does all the numbers work).

We may negotiate role performance (I'll work more now for time off then).

We prioritize roles (family emergencies come first).

First, different people hold conflicting expectations about the same role.Think of the role of student. Your professor defines the student role in terms of your course performance or your achievement of milestones toward your advanced degree, such as an internship. However, other students may define the student role as "party animal" or "sports participant".

Second, the role itself may have conflicting expectations built-in to it.These conflicting expectations can even be held by the same person, including the role incumbant. Perfect dads are supportive and sensitive yet also must discipline their children. The good employee is loyal to boss and co-workers, yet is expected to become a "whistle blower" should illegal or unethical events occur.

Again, to cope with intrarole conflict, we may segregate or compartmentalize roles by breaking down a single role (e.g., professor) into subcomponents (teacher, researcher). We may avoid people whom we believe define a role in ways detrimental to us (avoid the "party animal" the semester we are studying for comps). Alternatively, we can keep people who hold incompatible expectations about the same role apart (don't invite your grandmother to the fraternity party).

Perhaps the most difficult task is to create role integration, by redefining or reconstructing the meaning and duties of a role so that it no longer seems internally contradictory. For example, I may decide that "being a good mother" means paying more individualized attention to my son and laughing at his jokes, rather than preparing gourmet meals or ironing his shirts.

What about role overload and role strain--when it seems one's role duties are just "too much"? Up to a point (what that point may be is not well determined by research and, of course, may differ by the individual) people generally thrive on a variety of roles. For example, some of the happiest adults in national surveys are consistently married women with small children and part-time employment outside the home. On the other hand, role loss, which happens later on with retirement, the "empty nest" or widowhood can trigger depression.

Role strain can occur when the individual is unprepared for role demands or experiences incompatibility or conflict among sets of roles. Because of role overload, for example, the individual may feel guilty about neglecting their family for paid employment. Young adults, especially parents, frequently must buy many things to set up housekeeping at a time when their paychecks are relatively low, leading to financial strains and more anxiety about their ability to fulfill provider roles. "Unsecured debt", typically credit card debt, increased among young adults 25 to 34 years old from $3100 in 2004 to $4700 in 2005. Young adults often underanticipate how exhausting it can be to care for an infant who wakes several times during the night.


"USE IT OR LOSE IT": Physiology

Most young adults physically feel that they are "at their peak". As Boyd and Bee note, however, reaction times begin to slow in one's 20s and muscle strength can begin to deteriorate if the individual is not physically active. Serious athletes may notice these differences but the weekend runner probably will not. Female fertility actually starts lowering in the late 20s, and markedly declines  in one's 30s, particularly toward the late 30s. Osteoporosis can actually begin to manifest itself in the late 30s, especially among women, particularly very thin women. Nutritional or habitual choices made during early adulthood (calcium, cigarette smoking) can create problems or maintain health later on.

Is it really "all downhill from here"? Physically, among young adults, only if the individual gets too little exercise (or sometimes so much, as in the case of osteoporosis among women, that it shuts down hormone production). The greatest culprits, in fact, are often single young professionals--or even graduate students--at desk jobs. Too much sitting! Blue collar men, at this age, engage in considerable physical exercise. Young mothers expend considerable energy and exercise tracking young children. However, those "chained to their desks" may put in such long hours at work--not atypical among the young professional who wants to get promoted, make partner, or get tenure--that exercise or its lack becomes a topic for guilt.

Mentally, on the other hand, well-educated young adults face some of the steepest challenges of their professional lives. Studies of medical students, for example, show that they quickly learn skimming techniques for reading because the reading load is so heavy. As we saw in the chart in Guide 5, more recent generations of young adults have had much more exposure to science and math in high school than earlier generations did (and, correspondingly show more sophistication in science inquiry than earlier generations do and more interest in Web science news, science TV shows or science magazines).

Adult thinking, probably due to more varied life experiences, tends to be more sophisticated, less linear, and more oriented toward problem solving. In addition,the final structures of the brain in the prefrontal cortex involved with impulse control or good judgement mature in one's early 20s. However, the trick is to turn all this preparation into a satisfying career.

Perhaps some of the greatest challenges occur when the young adult navigates the job market! Many young adults, especially college graduates, have inflated expectations of what they will earn in their early professional and managerial jobs, expecting to walk into jobs paying $70,000 per year--or more. Here is where information from the Census and the National Center for Health Statistics (which tracks births, deaths, marriages, divorces, and the like) is useful. My data here come from the Statistical Abstract of the United States. For example, in 2009 (there is a lag of a few years in compiling data), median HOUSEHOLD income for those 25 to 34 was about $53,312. Peak earnings were among householders 45 to 54 years (about $76,000). In 2009, median household income was $60,088. These are typically figures for two income households. Those living in the Southeast, with less education, in singleton households, or of African-American or Hispanic heritage earned less. Keep in mind, of course, that those living in single adult households may be much younger than those in married couple households. Men with a baccalaureate degree or more, had mean earnings of about $61,000 in 2009 while women with the same education earned about $41,000 annually. One might call this job market "sticker shock" in terms of expectations, a sense of entitlement and reality.

Check out the 2012 Statistical Abstract information, beginning HERE (OPTIONAL).*
*It's unclear whether there was a 2013 Stat Abstract; the 2014 is not as accessible online as earlier editions (new publisher and much more expensive!)

And keep in mind that children are COSTLY! The higher the income of the household, the more costly they become. In 2010 (Table 689 of "Stat Abstracts" 2012), husband-wife families with less than $57,600 income per year spent an average of $8800 on an infant under age 2 and about $9600 annually on middle teenagers. Families with annual incomes of over $99,730 spent an annual average of nearly $20,000 on their infant and almost $24,000 per year per middle teenager 15 to 17 years old. We can see part of the reason for the growth in unsecured debt--and corresponding provider role strain in these figures.

Here's a link (OPTIONAL) that estimates the cost of raising children,  which depends heavily on family income, the sibling position of the child, and location, HERE. If you are very brave, you may want to click on the link this site contains from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to estimate the cost of your present or future child with your specifics.


"Marriage is the triumph of hope over experience" (Mark Twain)

Most young adults expect to marry, despite experience with their parents' generation, relatively few expect to divorce and most want children, at least "some time". What's the reality?

Census and NIMH statistics paint a bleaker but probably more accurate picture for young adults than Boyd and Bee do in terms of marriage, children, and divorce. Currently marriage statistics are at their lowest in American recorded history and the percentage remaining single (NEVER MARRIED in Census terminology) is relatively high. Eventually, most Americans do marry. Note that this information in the table (CLICK HERE OPTIONAL for the online, somewhat dated, detailed table 1, Marital History for people 15 years old and older by Age, Sex, Race and Ethnicity: 2001) mostly is NOT by cohort but is cross-sectional, meaning that it can reflect both age AND generational effects. Approximately 40% of Whites and Blacks aged 50 to 59 had been divorced at least once, compared with about 30% of same-aged Hispanics, but only 20% or less for comparable adults of Asian background. Current projected rates of divorce in first marriages are estimated to be at least 45% for both sexes (see the Census publication below, Table 11). In 2008 59% of all men and 56% of all women were married (there are fewer men than women so male odds of marriage are slightly higher.)

The Census publication by Kreider and Fields, "Number, Timing and Duration of Marriage and Divorces: 1996" (one of the more recent thorough analyses, hard as it is to believe) examines both age and cohort in more detail. Virtually no reputable demographers calculate divorce by dividing the number of divorces by the number of marriages; instead as in these two examples, they obtain longitudinal histories. However the picture is still relatively depressing. This Current Population guide documents the rise in the age of marriage since the 1960s (median age then at first marriage was 20 for brides and 22 for grooms) to the mid-1990s (now in the late-2000s about 25 for brides and 27 for grooms... ), the larger percentage never married, as well as the increases in percentage divorced, which rises by both age and recency of birth cohort. Although about 75% of men born between 1945 and 1949 celebrated their 25th wedding aniversaries, the same was true for only 57% of men born 20 years later (partly due, of course, to the rise in age of marriage). The fabled "7 year itch" for divorce appears in nearly all ethnic groups (Table 6).

See also our online library of external links (OPTIONAL) for several stories about low marriage rates and recently released reports, The "news" is that marriage rates have dropped dramatically among those with less than a B.A. degree--i.e., the overwhelming majority of adults. Only those with at least 4 years of college marry at rates close to those in the past. People still "get together" and have children, but, with the demise of "common law" marriage in nearly all states do not have the same legal protection that marriage as "next of kin" can provide, such as rights of inheritance, insurance, and parenthood.

Rates of marriage rise with educational level for both sexes, at least through the BA Degree (for women) and through graduate and professional degrees for men (rates level or plateau past the BA Degree for women, but continue to climb for men). Separation and divorce rates are also lower for those who complete at least four years of college as well. Contrary to dismal popular media projections in the late 1980s gloomily proclaiming that a woman who had not married by her mid-30s had a greater chance "of being killed by a terrorist than marrying," single women in their mid-30s had at least a 50% projected chance of marriage.

By the way, in case you were wondering why men had higher rates of divorce and remarriage than comparable women, the answers lie in birth rates among relative cohorts and higher death rates among men. These contribute to greater numbers of women than men at various adult ages, thus men find it easier to divorce and remarry than women the same age.

How about children? During the 1970s, birth rates literally nose-dived, well below replacement levels with completed total fertility at about 1.76 children per woman (replacement fertility is about 2.13 children per woman). In the 1980s, with a wiggle in the rate here and there, rates began to slowly inch up. At this point total completed fertility is about 2.007 children per woman, slightly below replacement and has dropped significantly since 2009.

More recent figures show preliminary estimates for 2010 as the lowest birth rates in a century.

The late twentieth century was marked by convergence across educational, religious, social class and ethnic lines in terms of child-bearing and contraceptive use among young women. For example, since about 2000, White and Black rates of completed fertility are nearly identical. Birth rates for women in their 40s have more than doubled since 1980 (but are still quite low) but birth rates for teenagers are now about 30% lower than they were 30 years ago. Peak rates for childbearing are for women in their late 20s.

How about unmarried young women and birth rates, the news that constantly seems to make the media headlines? The reality (thanks to Stat Abstracts) is much more boring. Birth rates for married women are about 50% higher than for those never married and both sets of rates dropped during the late 1900s. However, the drop in birth rates has been steeper among married than among never married women. As a result, births to unmarried women regardless of age, about one-quarter of the total in 1990 by 2002 became about one-third of the total and by 2010 about 41% of the total births. As of 2008, the majority of births to Black and Hispanic women were to unmarried women; the corresponding fractions for White (non-Hispanic) women were nearly one-third and for Asian women over 1/6.

Why should these trends be of interest to us? Never married mothers are poorer and their children more likely to be assessed as "at risk" in school. Teen mothers in particular less often receive consistent pre-natal care and are more apt to deliver low birth weight babies. Low birth weight babies have a history of more illness, higher mortality rates, and more often are diagnosed with learning disabilities.


Put together, there are several implications of all these trends:

The current vocational and premature specialization emphases for teens and young adults in high school and college appear misplaced. Except for service jobs that require one on one, the composition of tomorrow's job market is uncertain. Recently I even read about companies "outsourcing" employees who need surgery to India, where doctors are well-trained but the costs are less. Competition for "STEM" jobs (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is fierce, especially at the baccalaureate level. Great jobs for a B.A. in biology are few and far between.

Rather, we must train young people to be able to think and learn quickly, that's a very different set of skills than vocational preparation.

Young people must be prepared to spend at least some of their time as a young adult as an independent adult. Marriage is occuring later, divorce rates are up, and child bearing is down from 50 years ago. No one can afford gender discrimination in American society! We need to train young women to be financially self sufficient and young men to be self sufficient in domestic labor.

More support mechanisms should be in place for single parents, especially single or younger mothers. This includes child care, health insurance, training and job placement assistance. Rather than a Utopian socialistic scheme, these recommendations face the reality that poor single mothers "cost" the rest of us, too--in hospital emergency room costs due to lack of health insurance and less preventive medicine, in increased costs for special education, and unemployment funding. It's too early to know the effects of the Affordable Care Act, but major medical costs in the United States have been a major cause of family bankrupcies.

Health advertising should be targetted toward developing healthy habits in young adults. Self-care routines started now, nutritious diets, exercise, moderation in drinking and targetting cigarette smoking will pay big dividends in middle and late adulthood.

What kind of retirement can today's young adults expect as they age? Unfortunately we don't know. When Social Security was created, the idea was that a large pool of young and middle aged adults would pay to help support older adults. However, with the drop in birth rates and increases in longevity, there are relatively fewer young Americans paying into a "pool" to support more older Americans with Baby boomers heading into their 60s in mammoth numbers. Social Security is sure to be restructured in some way during our lifetimes. It may mean fewer benefits or it may mean that less money will be spent on other issues to keep benefits level.

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Susan Carol Losh February 25 2014