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Review of "On the Frontier of Adulthood"

By Richard A. Settersten Jr., Frank F. Furstenberg Jr., and Ruben G. Rumbaut (Editors)
University Of Chicago Press, 2005
Review by Viorel Zaicu, Ph.D. on Jan 23rd 2006
On the Frontier of Adulthood

Take one hundred years. It is an impressive span in time, for a human being. There was wars, economic breakthroughs, migrations, inventions, revolutions, shifts in the education style, etc., with all their consequences: new life styles, targets, habits, expectations, etc. Obviously, one cannot have the same course of life at the dusk of this period as in the dawn. But where is the biggest difference in this course? Which are the salient differences in peoples' behaviors? How much readiness is in our minds and in public authorities minds to "read" these signs that clearly states that people have new life courses, in which not only that they do different things, but they do old things at different moments?

The editors and contributors, many of them members of the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood and Public Policies, have tried to gather all the necessary data for a good understanding of the problem. For there is a problem: early adulthood (or late adolescence) it is a genuine stage in the life of an individual standing in the threshold of the 21st century.

One can compare the data cross-national or simply inside the borders of one country. Adulthood frontier's problem it is not one of the United States, Germany, United Kingdom or France. It is a problem of all advanced industrialized countries: a problem of social institutions, such as welfare regimes, labor and housing markets, religious and educational institutions, and cultural practices, ideologies values and attitudes, which all shape the individual behavior in the same way across those countries. There are, of course, national differences, but we can neglect them -- these differences do not create unique patterns.

The transition to adulthood during the twentieth century is marked by dramatic changes in education and family formation patterns. Structural and economic shifts drew people in the cities, and women were drawn in the labor forces, so that the work and family formation were molded on the new opportunities and habits. Men and women delayed the marriage and individualized their pathways to adulthood. Time use patterns show a convergence between men and women, designed by economic opportunities for young adults and changes in social norms concerning gender equality.

None of these aspects remain unrelated to the others. Obviously, certain combinations between gender, ethnicity, education, etc. are more favorable for a smooth way towards adulthood than others. It is also obvious that some social policies enhance particular sets of personal qualities and dispositions to act. The book includes a set of outlines for the main issues to be addressed through public policies. For example, the need for improvement in the footing of vulnerable populations is very well sketched through the summing of the results showing that there are populations that face insurmountable obstructions after the leave from the public system. In conjunction with the notice that the economic mobility it is not so high to help the overcoming of related problems, we have a good to believe that a government support for redistributive politics is necessary. This refers to the US government, like the other findings regarding public policies improvements, but most of them can be applied to Western Europe's governments as well.

Maybe the main "black point" for the reader who wants to be struck by a chart that pictures the whole of the problem can be seen in the lack of an overall synoptically track of the evolution from the short transition from adolescence to adulthood (as it was early in the twentieth century) to the span not covered neither by adolescence, nor by adulthood. But there are two good reasons for this lack. First, the complexity and amounts of data are hindering such an endeavor. Second, the picture of the phenomenon is in front of everyone. It is impossible to think that there is one person who does not see an example illustrating the behavior described in the book among his friends or colleagues. Surveys' results are meant to reveal the trends and dimensions of the phenomenon, not only its existence, which, at least in some of its aspects, is older than the period taken in consideration. 

The book keeps track of these changes for every important category: childbearing and marriage (separate and in joint sequence), time use (in education, housework, leisure, travel, etc.), generation gaps in attitudes, behavior and values (from the 70s to the 90s). Then follows the changing in conceptions. When do adolescents become adults? How people make the transition to adulthood? How the different pathways affect adult outcomes? How many paths we have? How hard it is for each category to get ahead? Does ethnic and racial diversity counts? How important is the material assistance from families? These are just few of the question raised and addressed throughout the book. Simplifying, we can say that the book is:

  • Introducing the problem;
  • Stating and comparing the differences, along the most important directions;
  • Raising questions about which are the important factors and how these affect the target;
  • Analyzing the policies and practices with regard to the problem, and stating the trends.

Finally, for the book is a result of a big sociological endeavor, I have to mention that the reader will find here not only charts and tables of processed information, but also technical information on surveys, the forms and the methods used, and generally a large amount of technical materials. Of course, this is a precondition for demonstrating the scientific accuracy, but these technical data speak also about the wideness of these studies and the relevance of the findings.

Yet, the authors mention that there are reasons to believe that an exhaustive study of the problem it is not possible. There are challenges and impediments hard to overcome: a highly accurate study is very expensive, some of the paths to special populations are closed, gathering a right research team (which has to be a multidisciplinary one) requires important efforts, etc. But, with large amounts of data and bundles of perspectives, this book represents a very good starting point for the economical, political and generally cultural studies on the western (post-) industrialized countries' citizens. Probably the next step to be made regarding this subject is that of studying the changes in mentalities and moralities, as well as the new challenges raised by the collided interests of lifelong education and social vulnerability of those squeezed by material duties. But there is, also, a rich set of exits towards the field of social problems, not to be neglected by any of those who are seeking answers.


Ó 2006 Viorel Zaicu


Viorel Zaicu, Ph.D., Bucharest, Romania

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