Finishing School—Not Leaving Home—Seen as Primary Marker of Adulthood

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 05, 2017 1 min read
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What does it mean to be an adult? While in 1975, getting your own place and raising a family were the main markers, today’s young adults cite finishing education as far and away the most important milestone, according to new Census Bureau data.

Census analysts looked at how quickly Americans ages 18 to 35 met common benchmarks of adulthood in 1975 and from 2012-16. They found modern young adults continue to significantly delay social benchmarks like starting a family to focus on education and work, and consider the latter much more important to considering themselves “adults,” as the chart at right shows. In 1975, 45 percent of Americans ages 25 to 35 had already lived independently, married at least once, gotten a job and had a child. By contrast, only 24 percent of Americans in that age group today have met all those milestones.

Census analysts found education is a key driver of those changes. Modern young adults are the most highly educated generation to date, as the chart at left shows. Women, in particular, are earning college degrees at twice the rate they were in the 1970s.

“Having a more educated population of young adults marks a relative improvement in their economic condition, given the strong link between higher education and higher earnings,” the Census reports.

Moreover, while 66 percent of young adult men are employed full time, a statistic that has been flat since 1975, the percentage of young women working full time jumped from 26 percent to 48 percent in that time. In general, the data seem to show young adults more cautious about living on their own and starting a family until well after they have a degree and a stable job.

What does this all mean for K-12 educators and policymakers? For one thing, it means decades of initiatives declaiming the importance of higher education have been effective; young adults consider it the foremost benchmark for growing up. But it also means that over time, schools are likely to be working with generations of older parents with longer and more full-time careers. That may change how schools plan family engagement moving forward.

Charts Source: U.S. Census Bureau


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.