Sunday, January 18, 2015

Book Review: Aspiring Adults Adrift

Educational sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa have followed up their 2011 book Academically Adrift (which I review here) with Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates (2014). The new book, based on follow-up data from the same cohort studied in the earlier book, expands beyond the earlier book's inquiry into students' cognitive gains during college to investigate students' progress two years after graduation in domains such as employment, graduate education, romantic relationships, and living independently.

Some may question the entire premise of Aspiring Adults Adrift on the grounds that two years is too short a time frame to expect college graduates to have made major strides in traditional adult roles. Considering the state of the U.S. economy around the time of the students' 2009 graduation, difficulties establishing oneself in the workforce and other domains would indeed not be surprising.

In addition to providing basic descriptive information (e.g., percentages of graduates who are employed full-time, part-time, and not at all, two years out of college, and what kinds of salary they are making), Arum and Roksa test for correlation between academic aspects of the students' college experiences and their post-college success in the real world. College variables include students' performance on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA; a major part of Academically Adrift), institutional selectivity, and field of study.

Many of the statistical relationships between college variables and post-college success seemed rather modest. For example, with high and low CLA performance defined as one standard deviation above and below the mean, respectively, roughly 15% of low CLA scorers ended up in unskilled occupations, compared to 10% of high scorers.

Beyond the empiricism, Arum and Roksa have some larger points to make about U.S. higher education. Social aspects of college -- not just the party scene, but putting a high priority on meeting and getting along with fellow students from diverse backgrounds --  appear to be gaining in importance. Academic standards have so declined, the authors argue, that students see mere completion of all assigned work in a class as something noteworthy.

Aspiring Adults Adrift is not without interesting themes. However, for reasons noted above, I would recommend it only for readers with a specialized interest in college-student development.

Friday, December 26, 2014

New York Times: "Is it Smart to Delay Adulthood?"

The New York Times features a "Room for Debate" forum, featuring several expert columnists, on the question "Is it Smart to Delay Adulthood?"

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Steinberg: "The Case for Delayed Adulthood"

Today's New York Times features an article by Temple University professor Laurence Steinberg entitled "The Case for Delayed Adulthood" (link). The article focuses on brain development in the context of life experiences, arguing that the longer one can be exposed to novel and challenging situations during the adolescent and emerging-adult years, the better off one will be.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Texas Tech University's "Before I Graduate" Chalkboard

Universities are buzzing with excitement, as the new academic year is about to begin. Texas Tech University (where I'm on the faculty) is no exception. Whether to capture the hopes and dreams of today's youth, or just for fun, or for whatever reason, the university invites students to write what they hope to accomplish "before I graduate," on a large chalkboard in the student union. Thinking that students' aspirations may (or may not) tell us something about emerging adulthood (EA), I took a photograph of the board yesterday. (You may click on the following image to enlarge it.)

Some of the statements reflect academic self-betterment ("I want to learn 3 languages"), whereas others are more whimsical ("Marry Kingsbury," in reference to Texas Tech's heart-throb football coach). One person writes, "I want to be a billionaire," unlikely in general, but especially before graduation!

Jeff Arnett writes in one of his books that EA "tends to be an age of high hopes and great expectations, in part because few of [these individuals'] dreams have been tested in the fires of real life" (p. 16).

Given that the bulk of emerging-adulthood research is on college students (presumably because they're such a readily available source of research participants), it is important to note that EA includes non-college youth, as well. In fact, this latter group has been labeled as the "Forgotten Half," for researchers' and policymakers' relative inattention to it.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Book Review: The Accordion Family

Katherine Newman's book The Accordion Family: Boomerang Kids, Anxious Parents, and the Private Toll of Global Competition probes a number of contemporary issues ranging from family dynamics to national economic and immigration policies. The term "accordion family" refers to the idea of households stretching, like an accordion, as grown children live in their family domiciles longer than they have in previous generations. The severe economic downturn of recent years and the continuing lack of jobs for young adults in many countries has likely exacerbated the trend.

Though accordion families seem to be a constant across developed countries (except for Nordic countries such as Denmark and Sweden, which provide government benefits for young adults to secure their own housing), parents in different nations appear to have greatly divergent attitudes toward grown children living so long at home. Japanese parents are horrified, Italian and Spanish parents are more comfortable, and U.S. parents accept the situation as long as their children are attempting to better themselves educationally and occupationally.

Roughly the first half of the book establishes these national differences in depth, with extensive use of excerpts from interviews conducted by Newman's international team of researchers in the different nations. I personally found this part of the book a little dense and tedious, driving home the basic points repeatedly.

Fortunately, I did not give up on the book halfway through. The second half applies a more analytic outlook, examining several key issues in family studies:

*Even though many parents and grown children enjoy each other's companionship and the increasingly egalitarian interactions that take place, what are potential disadvantages of grown children remaining home?

*Will some parents find that the expenses of maintaining an accordion family threaten their retirement savings?

*Do accordion-family dynamics differ depending on whether the grown child is male or female? One of my favorite quotes in the book is the following: "While boomerang women are just as capable of sloth as their brothers or boyfriends, there does seem to be a gender problem afoot here. Young men seem far more likely to drag their feet when it comes to striking out on their own, and they seem less inclined to worry that they are putting their parents, especially their mothers, to a lot of trouble..." (p. 142).

*Is there an inherent trade-off between economic independence and social-affectional bonds? In other words, do the government policies that allow children in Nordic countries to move out of the family home at a young age (potentially a good thing) have the unintended consequence of making members of the different generations more socially distant from each other? Or conversely, does the banding together of accordion families in response to economic difficulties (potentially a stressful experience) promote emotional closeness?

*Whether grown children's boomerang lifestyle is a cause, consequence, or correlate of delayed marriage and childbearing, low birthrates threaten the future tax base for countries' old-age pension plans (e.g., Social Security in the U.S.). As Newman discusses, the nations featured in the book vary widely in their openness to immigration, which (intentionally or not) allows high-immigration countries to maintain their population size. Native-born residents' attitudes toward the immigrants sometimes create a new source of friction, however.

*When boomerang parents' own parents begin to require extensive caregiving, will the challenges of "sandwich generation" status intensify? (What would the field of family studies be like without all these cute nicknames?)

I think it's clear that governments and families in many countries face important long-term decisions and Newman does an excellent job of framing them. I will be interested to see if future authors extend the analysis beyond the narrow band of economically advanced countries examined in The Accordion Family to a broader array of nations.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Child Trends Study Links Adolescent Variables to Successful Transitions to Adulthood

The research organization Child Trends has just released a report, using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), on how variables assessed during adolescence presage the quality of one's transition to adulthood.

Predictor variables (assessed in Waves I and II, when respondents were in grades 7-12) included supportive relationships with parents, friends, and teachers; and religious involvement.

The behaviors that comprised the outcome categories -- "heavy alcohol use, illicit drug use, marijuana use, serious delinquent behavior, and serious financial problems" -- were not described until an appendix. At each of Waves III (which included ages 18-26) and IV (24-32), participants were divided via latent class analysis into "minimal," "moderate," and "multiple" problem groups.

Religious involvement and caring relationships with parents and teachers predicted membership in the least problematic group at Wave III, although a supportive relationship with friends during adolescence predicted more behavior problems for the focal participants. Perhaps closeness to friends led many adolescents into risk-taking behaviors with peers.

Finally, moving into a lower-risk group between Waves III and IV (i.e., into the mid-20s and early 30s), that is to say, a favorable transition to adulthood, was predicted by religious involvement and a caring relationship with teachers, as assessed during adolescence.

Concurrent correlations between high religious involvement and refraining from risky/problematic behaviors do not allow one to ascertain the direction of causality. It could be that religious involvement protects against problem behaviors, but it is also possible that well-behaved youth are attracted to religious involvement. The longitudinal nature of the Add Health dataset, however, has allowed the Child Trends investigators to show that religious involvement in adolescence precedes the low levels of problem behavior in young adulthood.

Monday, August 5, 2013

New York Times Article on College Women's "Hook-Ups"

The New York Times ran a lengthy article on college women's sexual "hook-ups," a few weeks ago, based on interviews with several dozen female students at the University of Pennsylvania. A key theme of the article is that young women, or at least those at this Ivy League institution, are so single-mindedly devoted to acquiring the skills and credentials for a high-powered career that they show little apparent interest in full-fledged romantic relationships. Instead, they confine their romantic/sexual activity to less time-consuming hook-ups. One student is quoted as saying, “If I’m sober, I’m working.”

The article's author also interviews several researchers of hooking-up. One is Elizabeth Armstrong, a University of Michigan sociology professor. The Times article summarizes one of Armstrong's major arguments thusly:

Increasingly, [Armstrong] said, many privileged young people see college as a unique life stage in which they don’t — and shouldn’t — have obligations other than their own self-development.

This observation is, of course, very much in line with one of Jeff Arnett's five facets of Emerging Adulthood, namely that it is a time of self-focus (see Chapter 1 of Arnett's [2004] textbook, which is free online). According to Arnett, "To say that emerging adulthood is a self-focused time is not meant pejoratively... The goal of their self-focusing is self-sufficiency, learning to stand alone as a self-sufficient person, but they do not see self-sufficiency as a permanent state. Rather, they view it as a necessary step before committing themselves to enduring relationships with others, in love and work" (pp. 13-14).

In research I conducted with Arnett and my Texas Tech colleague Malinda Colwell, we developed a measure of the five Emerging Adulthood facets. The self-focus subscale asks respondents the extent to which this time of their life can be characterized by phrases such as "personal freedom," "responsibility for yourself," "self-sufficiency," and "focusing on yourself." We also have a subscale called other-focus, which is not part of the primary concept of Emerging Adulthood, but instead represents a counterpoint to self-focus. Items on the other-focus subscale include "settling down," "responsibility for others," and "commitment to others."

We have found in some of our studies that self-focus tends to be highest in 18-23 year-olds, a little lower in 24-29 year-olds, and lower still among respondents in their 30s and beyond. In contrast, other-focus tends to be lowest in 18-23 year-olds, and incrementally higher in the 24-29 and 30-39 age groups. Other-focus appears to decline somewhat among people in their 40s and 50s, perhaps because some of them may live in "empty nest" households.

Toward the end of the Times article, the author alludes to an alternative perspective, one that urges young people to be open to early marriage and focuses on "the support that young couples could provide each other as they faced the challenges of early adulthood."

Statistically, early marriage is associated with increased probability of divorce. However, according to the 2011 book Premarital Sex in America, by Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, "Most sociological evaluations of early marriage note that the link between age-at-marriage and divorce is strongest among those who marry as teenagers (in other words, before age 20). Marriages that begin at age 20, 21, or 22 are not nearly so likely to end in divorce as most Americans presume" (p. 180).

Later marriages are probably best for some people, whereas earlier marriages are probably best for others. One might say that, for any individual, wisdom is knowing which option will lead to the greatest stability, growth, and fulfillment.