Financial Independence

The third of the top three criteria, financial independence, also has connotations of individualism. However, financial independence is more tangible, more definite and measurable than accepting responsibility for one's self or the capacity for making independent decisions. It is a yardstick by which young people can measure quite definitely their progress toward adulthood. A 25-year-old woman viewed herself as mostly but not entirely finished with the transition to adulthood, because "I'm paying for everything. I'm paying for school, I'm paying for my car, I'm paying for my credit card bills that were my fault a long time ago . . . The only thing is, I'm not paying for rent, and I think that's a part of adulthood." A 28-year-old man recalled the significance of a single event that denoted his financial independence, and at the same time his movement into adulthood: "I would say the first time it ever hit me in the face was the first time I ever had to sign on the dotted line for a car loan. To me, being an adult was signing on the dotted line and knowing I had a big payment every month."

Like decision-making competence, financial independence often means, specifically, independence from parents (Moore, 1987). A 23-year-old man observed that becoming an adult means "not going to Mom and Dad and saying, 'Can I have $300 to go to Florida with the guys for Spring Break?'" A 24-year-old woman said that she does not feel like an adult "when I have my mom pay half the rent . . . when she helps me out with that, it makes me feel like a kid again."

Although independent decision making and financial independence rank high as criteria for the transition to adulthood, and both have connotations of independence from parents, it is interesting to note that several studies of relationships with parents among adolescents and emerging adults emphasize that these forms of independence do not signify emotional separation from parents. This literature stresses that autonomy (independence of thought and behavior) and relatedness (emotional closeness and support) are complementary rather than opposing dynamics in parent-child relationships during adolescence and emerging adulthood in the American middle class (Arnett, 2004; Allen, Hauser, Bell, & O'Connor, 1994; Ryan & Lynch, 1989; O'Connor, Allen, Bell, & Hauser, 1996). In fact, it is a consistent finding in these studies that young people who are more self-reliant also report closer relationships to their parents. In the present study, this is reflected in the finding that "not deeply tied to parents emotionally" ranks very low as a criterion for adulthood even though a variety of criteria indicating autonomy from parents rank high (Table 19.1).

At the same time, the difference between traditional cultures and Western cultures in relationships with parents during adolescence and adulthood should not be underestimated. Numerous studies show that expectations of continued interdependence with parents through adolescence and into adulthood is the norm for traditional cultures (for example in China [Yang, 1988] and Japan [Shand, 1985]). Although relationships between parents and adolescents in American society tend to seek a balance of autonomy and relatedness, the degree of autonomy allowed and expected for American adolescents is considerably greater than in traditional cultures (Shand, 1985). What is considered emotionally close by American adolescents and their parents may seem relatively distant to parents and adolescents in traditional cultures (Kagitcibasi, 1996).

In sum, individualism is the predominant feature of young people's conceptions of the transition to adulthood in American society. The three top criteria for becoming an adult—accepting responsibility for one's self, independent decision making, and financial independence—all signify the developing capacity of the individual to be independent, self-reliant, and self-sufficient.

Furthermore, the top two criteria, accepting responsibility and making independent decisions, are qualities of character. Qualities of character are also important to the transition to adulthood cross-culturally and historically, as we have seen. However, in other places and times the attainment of the appropriate character qualities has been capped by marriage as a definite, explicit marker of reaching adulthood. For today's young Americans, in contrast, marriage ranks low as a criterion for adulthood, and consequently it is qualities of character that play the largest part in marking their transition to adulthood.

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