Academic journal article College Student Journal

Diversity in Adult Experiences and Criteria for Adulthood among College Students

Academic journal article College Student Journal

Diversity in Adult Experiences and Criteria for Adulthood among College Students

Article excerpt

Recent literature suggests that emerging adults are more likely to use individualistic criteria to define adulthood, rather than traditional criteria such as role transitions and family capacities. In this study of 425 college students from a northeastern university, we identified several sources of variation in both the ways in which young people define adulthood and the nature of their adult experiences. The study's key findings are that females are more likely than males to emphasize individualism and norm compliance as necessary criteria for adulthood; non-whites are more likely than whites to value role transitions; and females are more likely than males to comply with social norms in their lives. The results indicate that the emphasis on modal perceptions of adulthood and adult experiences in adulthood transition research may be obscuring important demographic variation.


Recent life course research has been dominated by studies of the transformation in the timing and sequencing of traditional markers of adulthood among emerging adults. Citing changes in the ages during which young people leave home, complete school, begin their careers, get married and have children, social scientists have observed that the process of becoming an adult has become less ordered, less predictable, more prolonged, and more diversified. The end of adolescence, once more clearly marked, has become more extended over time; while entry into adulthood has become indistinct, increasingly gradual, and certainly more complicated (Settersten, Furstenberg, & Rumbaut, 2005).

Understanding a change in a phase of the life course is challenging because it requires the interpretation of both attitudes and experiences. Young people's attitudes

about what it means to be an adult have been studied extensively (Arnett, 1998; Westberg, 2004; Nelson & Barry, 2005). Demographic research has chronicled the transformation in the timing of role transitions on the path to adulthood (Mou, 2005). Less is known about the nature of emerging adults' experiences with existential transitions. Westberg (2004) defined existential transitions as indefinite personal developments such as controlling one's emotions or acting maturely. Arnett (1998, 2001) has found that most emerging adults believe transitions of this sort are much more important signs that a person has reached adulthood than the role transitions which sociologists have traditionally emphasized. However, their experiences with these transitions are not well understood.

In this paper, we examine the diversity of college students' attitudes and experiences with both role transitions and existential transitions. Replications of Arnett's (1998) scale of emerging adulthood have consistently found that emerging adults in America, and also in other countries, place high importance on individualistic criteria for adulthood, such as taking responsibility for one's actions, while placing little importance on time honored role transitions, such as starting a career or getting married. The current analysis is the first to report data on the proportions of college students who have actually experienced the transitions in Arnett's model of emerging adulthood. We contend that college students' attitudes on the definition of adulthood need to be interpreted within the contexts of their life experiences and their sociodemographic characteristics. By identifying variation in perceptions of what it means to be an adult among college students, we expect that the diversity of experiences and opinions on the transition to adulthood will be better understood.

Characterizations of the Adulthood Transition

In recent years, young people undergoing the transition to adulthood have been given names such as "twixters," "boomerang kids," and "kidadults" both outside and inside of academia (Grossman, Mustafa, van Dyk, Kloberdanz & Schultz 2005). These titles depict the current generation of young people as disinterested in growing up, longing to remain dependent on their parents, and reluctant to make commitments to others. …

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