A recent New York Times Magazine article about today’s 20-something’s has gone viral, with countless electronically connected young people circulating the story about how their cohort is changing all the rules when it comes to transitioning to adulthood. They are in a sort of limbo, "forestalling the beginning of adult life," as they extend their schooling, jump between career paths, and delay marriage and childbearing. This article notes some of the cultural forces feeding this trend: a sluggish job market and the increasing need for post-secondary education in today’s workforce are two major reasons for the shift. But the article misses a critical part of the story: how have these changes affected low-income, disadvantaged young adults?
In fact, this elongated transition worsens already existing disparities between disadvantaged youth and their more educated, higher income counterparts.
Covered in detail in the latest volume of The Future of Children, the shift from childhood to full adulthood places great strain on both young people and their families. Although governmental programs provide some support for disadvantaged children, the burden falls primarily on private institutions or interpersonal networks for those 18 and older. Across the income spectrum, parents are spending about ten percent of their income to support young adult children, but ten percent of a lower or middle class income provides fewer opportunities than a comparable portion of an upper-middle or upper class family salary. Moreover, for a family already struggling financially, providing for an adult child can be very stressful.
More affluent parents may help children by offering them rent-free housing, monetary support, or a potential safety net while the children experiment with low-paying jobs or unpaid internships. In addition, they can help emerging adults establish themselves by providing loans or assistance towards buying a car or house. Such assets help young adults build up capital and transition more smoothly into stable careers and family life. Less wealthy parents may not be able to provide their children with the same advantages without incurring major costs. Their resources are more limited and available money may be less reliable from year-to-year. As a result, these more disadvantaged children may fall even further behind their peers.
In addition, parents assist their children by connecting them to other networks of support, including people who may help them advance their careers and institutions that facilitate transitions. One such institution is college. Private colleges, more heavily populated by more affluent youth, tend to offer extensive support to help students develop at least partial autonomy, such as on-campus housing, extensive activities and entertainment, adult and peer support, health care, and counseling or other resources to guide students into jobs and post-college life. Community colleges, which are more in reach for many lower-income families, offer their students far less support and far fewer opportunities, thus deepening disadvantages.
Another trend widening the gap between young people is the timing of having children. While young people spanning the socioeconomic range are marrying later, less affluent young people are forming families while still in their late teens and early twenties, often outside of marriage. The responsibilities that accompany parenthood – from medical needs to childcare – pose additional challenges to completing an education and maintaining a steady job. To make matters worse, many young, unmarried parents break up shortly after their child is born, and young mothers often turn to their own mothers for help. Middle and upper class youth that wait until married with a stable career to have children are much better equipped to handle these additional costs and demands without relying on overburdened families. Without parents or public programs that can assist them, more disadvantaged youth continue to struggle with the assumption of adult roles.
As this widely-experienced yet new phase of maturation becomes more studied and understood, effort needs to be made to make sure that those emerging adults who are already disadvantaged – from impoverished families, with weak family ties, exiting foster care, requiring special education, or leaving the juvenile justice system – do not fall further behind. Whether by expanding social services beyond age eighteen or increasing the counseling and lifestyle support aspects of community college, society must help provide 20-somethings the assistance they need to transition into healthy, productive adult lives.