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A Profile of Disconnected Young Adults in 2010

Authors: Vanessa R. Wight, Michelle Chau, Yumiko Aratani, Susan Wile Schwarz, and Kalyani Thampi
Publication Date: December 2010

This is an excerpt from the full report.


The purpose of this report is to highlight a growing segment of the population who are arriving at young adulthood disconnected from the main pathways leading to economic independence. Arriving at young adulthood in a state of disconnection can have consequences for both young adults and the larger society. Young adults who have low educational attainment or who are out of school or unemployed for extended periods of time may be more likely to engage in delinquent behavior, turn to illegal activities as a source of income, and be incarcerated. The consequences of disconnection may also result in long-term penalties, such as underemployment and lower earnings over the life course. Young adults disconnected for three or more years are about 14 times more likely to be poor and earn about two and one half times less in earnings and are about two to three times less likely to be employed full-time than young adults who had never been disconnected. Disconnectedness experienced during young adulthood may also have serious health consequences. Research shows that different components of disconnectedness, such as having less than high school education or being unemployed is associated with suboptimal health and mental health outcomes. Furthermore, disconnected young adults are more likely to rely on some form of public assistance. Thus, the costs of disconnection to government can include increased transfer payments and social support expenses as well as a decrease in tax revenues from their lack of participation in the labor market. In short, this population deserves our attention given the longterm consequences being disconnected can pose for a successful transition to adulthood.

The Onset of Adulthood

Although social scientists have lacked a systematic definition of adulthood, the onset has historically involved emotional and economic independence and has been characterized by two main benchmarks: getting married and having children. Recent work in this area points to a changing notion of adulthood; one characterized less by marital and parental transitions and more by school completion, independent living, and full-time employment.

Yet, recent trends in demographic processes suggest that the transition to adulthood is becoming increasingly protracted and delayed. Children are living at home longer than they were 30 years ago. In 1970, 47.3 percent of young adults aged 18 to 24 were living at home. By 2009 young adults living at home had increased to 52.8 percent. They are staying in school longer. Nearly 30 percent of young adults were enrolled in school in 1970. By 2008, the percentage of young adults enrolled had increased to 45.5 percent. And this trend is evident at older ages, as well, suggesting that children are staying in school further into adulthood.

Young adults are also delaying marriage and childbearing. Since the 1970s, age at first marriage has steadily increased. In 1970, the median age at first marriage was 20.8 for women and 23.2 for men. By 2009, median age had increased by about five years for both women and men to 25.9 and 28.1, respectively. In addition, the average age of mothers at first birth has increased over this 30-year period, from 21.4 years in 1970 to 25 years in 2006. Although there is a debate about why these trends have occurred, there are at least three different hypotheses. One approach argues that changes in values and attitudes have contributed to rising individualism and an increased emphasis on the quality of adult relationships. Thus, we are less willing to marry or to remain in a bad union. A second approach argues that increased opportunities for women have reduced the returns of marriage for both women and men. Women are more likely today than in the past to be able to support themselves, and because more married women are employed today than in the past, men lose the services that were once part of the housewife role. In short, a trend toward a more egalitarian division of labor has eroded the benefits of marriage. Finally, others argue the declines in marriage and childbearing are related to the deteriorating economic circumstances of young men. The lack of stable employment for men reduces both men and women’s willingness to form partnerships and start a family.

Amidst the backdrop of these dramatic changes in school enrollment, home leaving, marriage, and childbearing, there is a growing number of young adults for whom the transition is considerably more difficult. If one of the primary goals of a successful transition to adulthood is the ability to be self sufficient apart from parents, then a growing share of the young adult population is emerging from adolescence falling short of this goal. That is, they are not connected to any of the various activities which might lead to economic independence, such as being in school, working, or serving in the military. Past research that has focused on disconnected young adults has conceptualized this state as being disconnected from various means of support, including school and work, as well as spouse and parents. However, given the large shift in how young adults today conceptualize adulthood, marriage and parenthood no longer appear to be a necessary part of the definition of adulthood. Instead, important milestones include completing school, living independently, and being employed full-time. In short, the onset of adulthood appears to be defined more by the ability of both men and women to support themselves and less by the transition to marriage and parenthood. Thus, in this report, we define disconnection as a state in which young adults are not connected to any paths leading to economic independence. That is, young adults are disconnected if they are not enrolled in school, not employed or in the military, and have no degree beyond a high school diploma.