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America’s Youth on the Road to Adulthood

Wed May 03 2017
by Kurt Bauman, Education & Social Stratification Branch Chief
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America has changed over the years and so have the ways that our nation’s youth establish themselves on a path to independence and adulthood. As explained in a recent U.S. Census Bureau publication (The Changing Economics and Demographics of Young Adulthood from 1975 to 2016), this path has been labelled by social scientists as the “transition to adulthood.” It’s also been dubbed “emerging adulthood.”  This blog explores the changing perception of what it means to be an adult in the U.S.

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The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey is a robust source of data on the living arrangements during young adulthood, among many other topics on to U.S. households of all ages, including income, employment, school enrollment, and marriage. Living arrangements include residence with parents; independence (not living with parents or in any type of group quarters); residence in group quarters — including university dorms, correctional facilities and other group quarters.

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For this research, the living arrangements are separated into distinct categories, which means that certain areas of overlap have been simplified to allow diagramming these categories visually. When young people are working full time and enrolled in college, for example, they are categorized as working. When young people are married and living with parents, we have categorized them as living with parents. More than 90 percent of all married people are captured in our distinct categories. This decision to create separate categories means that some of the totals may differ from other Census Bureau figures.

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Figure 1 shows the shifting distribution of statuses across ages 16 to 34 in 2015. Moving diagonally upward from bottom left, the first two categories in shades of gray represent people who are enrolled in elementary or secondary school. At age 16, 96 percent of the population was enrolled in this level of school, but this dropped to less than 3 percent by age 21. By age 21, half of the population was still living with parents — 18 percent were without a full-time, year-round job (dark gray); 10 percent had a full-time, year-round job (grayish yellow); and 22 percent were attending college while still living in their parents’ home (gray-green).

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Overall, college impacted living arrangements for many young people. At 19 years of age, 58 percent were in college. But the living situation varied with age. At age 19, half of college students lived in their parents’ home (30 percent of all 19-year-olds). There were 19 percent of 19-year-olds in dorms, and 8 percent living independently (as defined above) while attending college (shown as light green). By age 30, only 5 percent were in college. Of this 5 percent, 1 percent were living with parents, 4 percent were living independently while attending college, and less than 1 percent were in dorms.

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A small percentage of young people were living in jails, prisons and other correctional facilities (red). This was the situation for 2 percent of people ages 16 to 34. There were 0.2 percent enrolled in school or college while also incarcerated.

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Those who do not live with parents or in college or other institutions like correctional facilities are shown in the top four categories in Figure 1. They became a majority of the population (57 percent) by age 25, and climbed to 83 percent by age 34. Breaking down the 34 year olds not living with a parent or in college or an institution, 8 percent were never married and did not have full-time, year-round employment, 15 percent were never married and did have a full-time year-round job, 21 percent were currently or formerly married without full-time, year-round employment, and 39 percent had been married and had full-time year-round jobs.

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This picture of the transition to adulthood can be compared to the situation in 2006, the first year the American Community Survey included people residing in group quarters (including institutions) as well as households. Figure 2 shows some key comparisons. First of all, living with parents or attending K-12 school became more common among 16- to 34-year-olds, with 37 percent in this situation in 2006, growing to 41 percent in 2015. By contrast, a smaller share lived independently in 2015. People living independently included those not living with parents, not in dorms or other group quarters, and not enrolled in college. This group can be divided into those who were never married and those who were currently or formerly married. The overall group was 52 percent of the population ages 16 to 34 in 2006 and 48 percent in 2015. This decline was accounted for by a decline in the share of 16- to 34-year-olds who were married, from 30 percent in 2006 to 24 percent in 2015. The share who were never married and living independently actually grew from 22 percent to 24 percent.

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While people ages 16 to 34 were delaying marriage, they were increasingly working or attending college. Those with full-time, year-round employment grew from 36 percent to 39 percent. Those enrolled in college, including those living at home, in dorms and on their own, went from 17 percent to 18 percent during the period from 2006 to 2015.

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The reason for the shifts we observe here is the subject of ongoing research by scholars of various disciplines. Some shifts may reflect long-term trends, others may result from the recession and recovery that occurred between 2006 and 2015. As we move forward through the 21st century, the American Community Survey will be a useful tool for keeping track of these important societal changes.

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