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Adulthood not easily defined


By Jerry Large

The Seattle Times



SEATTLE — You’re an adult when you finish school, get a "real" job, marry, buy a house and have kids.

OK, that isn’t an exact formula. There isn’t one. But that list was the starting point for a new look at the transition to adulthood. It’s in a book titled, "The Price of Independence: The Economics of Early Adulthood," published by the Russell Sage Foundation, which promotes social-science research.

I was thinking about the transition because my son will be 16 next week and ready to get a driver’s license.

That rite of passage will make him an adultish person, an adult lite, or maybe just a kid with a license.

The line of separation between adult and child is not sharp, but a lot depends on having some idea where it lies.

Who’s old enough to make life-or-death decisions, go to prison for life, have sex, drink alcohol?

The line moves depending on the question. I should say lines — legal lines and social lines aren’t always the same. But socially, at least, the age of adulthood seems to be rising.

Last week a news story about teens waiting longer to get their licenses said 29.8 percent of 16-year-olds had licenses in 2006, versus 43.8 percent in 1998.


I’ve noticed several of my son’s friends are in no hurry. Of course, they all have curb-to-curb limo service provided by Parents Inc.

There’s also been a lot of talk about offspring in their 20s coming back home to roost, and of young people taking longer to finish college or to find a job. In the book I mentioned, economists and experts in sociology, public policy and education test those growing perceptions against hard data. They found:

People are indeed marrying and having children later, which could mean fewer people supporting the next generation of old people.

—More young adults still live with their parents, but the more significant change is the growing number who aren’t going straight from their parents’ to a house with a spouse. Instead they are living alone or with someone else.

—It’s taking longer to find stable, well-paying jobs.

—Students are taking longer to complete college, partly because more people of limited means are in school and working at the same time.

There’s a growing gap between insurance coverage through a parent and the start of coverage through work.

—Imprisonment also delays achieving the markers of adulthood. The number of prisoners in the U.S. quadrupled between 1977 and 2004, and young men coming out earn less, are less likely to marry and more likely to be unemployed.


What’s stretching the transition to adulthood? The researchers concluded public policy likely has an impact, but what’s more important is that social values are changing. There’s less pressure to marry young, for example.

The book is a start toward being more aware of how we are changing, what needs fixing and what doesn’t.

We need to address problems like insurance gaps. But what’s the rush on that driver’s license anyway?

Sometimes independence can wait a bit.


(Contact Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or


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