Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Family Instability and the Transition to Adulthood

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Family Instability and the Transition to Adulthood

Article excerpt

Children's experience of repeated family structure change has a robust association with compromised development across the early life course. Implicit in prior research is the expectation that disparities in cognition and behavior accumulate through childhood and adolescence to influence the transition to adulthood. The authors assessed the association of early and later family structure instability with events in the transition to adulthood up to age 24 using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (TV = 8,841). They found that early and later family instability are associated with low rates of college completion, early union formation and childbearing, and an early entry into the labor force. The associations are explained by family structure, delinquency, and academic performance in adolescence.

Key Words: adolescence, emerging adulthood, family systems.

A growing body of literature has established a robust association between children's experience of repeated family structure change and compromised development across the early life course (Cavanagh, 2008; Cavanagh & Huston, 2006; Cooper, Osborne, Beck, & McLanahan, 2011; Fomby & Cherlin, 2007; Magnuson & Berger, 2009; Osborne & McLanahan, 2007; Wu & Martinson, 1993). Implicit in much of this work is the expectation that observed disparities in cognition and behavior in childhood and adolescence will influence the eventual transition to adulthood in ways that perpetuate social inequalities, either directly or through mediating pathways. We evaluated that expectation by assessing the long-term association of family structure instability with the timing and sequencing of the transition to adulthood up to age 24 using data from Waves 1 and 4 of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health; http://www. cpc.unc.edu/projects/addhealth). We evaluated the extent to which any observed association is explained by household resources, academic achievement, or risk-taking behavior in adolescence, each of which has been associated with repeated family structure transitions in prior research (Cooper, McLanahan, & Meadows, 2009; Fomby, Mollborn, & Sennott, 2010; Heard, 2007a; Meadows, McLanahan, & Brooks-Gunn, 2008; Osborne, Berger, & Magnuson, 2012).

BACKGROUND

Family Instability as a Distinct Component of Family Structure

Children's experience of family structure in the United States is increasingly diverse and dynamic. In part, the variety of family contexts in which children reside is a function of the relatively unstable nature of American marriages. Approximately 40% of U.S. children experience a union dissolution by age 15, and two thirds of such children experience their mother's new union formation within 6 years (Andersson, 2002). The rise in cohabitation and nonmarital childbearing has also contributed to diversity in family structure, with 43% of children born to single women or cohabiting parents between 2005 and 2010 (Payne, Manning, & Brown, 2012). Compared to marriage, both single-parent and cohabiting-parent family structures are relatively unstable. Seventy percent of children born to cohabiting parents experience their parents' union dissolution by age 12. By that same age, two thirds of children born to a single mother experience her entry into cohabitation, and nearly half of such children experience her marriage (Kennedy & Bumpass, 2008). Overall, contemporary cohorts of children and adolescents in the United States have a relatively high likelihood of experiencing one or more transitions between family structure statuses compared to previous generations or to peers in other developed countries.

Recognizing the diversity and flux in children's living arrangements, family demographers have employed the concept of family instability in the last decade to reflect the experience of family structure as a trajectory, rather than as a fixed status. …

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