Saturday, April 30, 2011

Book Review: Not Quite Adults

As documented on this blog, there has been a lot of writing lately on Emerging Adulthood (EA), in the form of books and newspaper/magazine articles. One of the newer arrivals on the scene is the book Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood, and Why It's Good for Everyone, written by Oregon State University professor Richard Settersten and Chicago-based writer Barbara Ray.

(The name of Ray's company, Hired Pen, may lead some observers to an erroneous conclusion; far from just mechanically writing up what her clients want her to, Barbara is a substantively knowledgeable commentator on the transition to adulthood. In fact, at my invitation, she appeared via Skype as a guest lecturer in my Texas Tech course on Development in Young Adulthood, last fall.)

Naturally, it was with great eagerness that I awaited the release of Not Quite Adults, and now having finished it, I think it will take its place among the leading contemporary books on emerging adulthood. Written accessibly for the general public (including parents, teachers, and student advisors), but with no lapse in scholarly rigor, the book covers many traditional topics of EA. These include higher education, jobs/careers, relationships/marriage, social contexts (parents and friends), and civic participation, areas in which the authors make several interesting contributions. As I now look back at the pages I annotated, there are many sections that will be helpful for my teaching and research.

The book seeks to weave together a few different threads: research findings from the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, with which the two authors are affiliated; interviews with young people going through the transition; and advice for such transitioners and their parents. A persistent lens through which the authors present their information is that of social class and inequality. With much of the EA literature slanted towards the college-educated, the book's considerable attention to working-class and lower-income individuals is a welcome development.

Settersten and Ray tackle difficult issues facing young people in recent years' Great Recession and they're not afraid to propound what some might consider counterintuitive ideas. One of the book's more provocative lines of arguments concerns money, debt, and pursuit of higher education. As I wrote in a different venue: issues likely play a more complex and challenging role for young people of modest economic means who could qualify academically for college, but are reluctant to apply, for fear of getting themselves deep into debt with college-tuition costs. In their new book Not Quite Adults, Richard Settersten and Barbara Ray suggest that the choice of not going to college, as a money-saving strategy, will likely backfire. On pp. 31-33, Settersten and Ray provide statistics on the amount of student debt commonly faced by college graduates and the increment in earnings college degree-holders are likely to receive, compared to their less-educated counterparts.

Another controversial issue on which the authors offer advice is the role of parents in helping their grown children make the transition to adulthood. Parents who seem to go too far in monitoring and acting on behalf of their children have earned the moniker "helicopter parents." A colleague recently shared another term with me for parents who try to clear away all obstacles in their emerging-adult children's way: "lawnmower parents" (or maybe it should be "bulldozer parents").

Settersten and Ray feel parents do have a constructive role to play, but that it should be confined to providing their children with advice and helping them appraise their skills, goals, and options. When parents actually take actions that the emerging-adult children should take for themselves is where the trouble starts (see pp. 176-181). In the past year, I've begun a research program on helicopter parents, which I think will benefit from Settersten and Ray's writings.

The authors also write extensively on young adults' trends toward delayed marriage. In this area, Settersten and Ray dovetail with the 2010 book Red Families v. Blue Families by Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, in evaluating the pros and cons of waiting to marry.

In conclusion, Not Quite Adults contributes valuable perspectives to contemporary discussions of the transition to adulthood, and does so in a lively and scholarly manner.