The Preeminence of Accepting Responsibility for Ones Self

Accepting responsibility for one's self was far and away the top criterion for adulthood, in both the questionnaire and the interview. The endorsement of the questionnaire item "accept responsibility for the consequences of your actions" as necessary for adulthood was nearly unanimous—94% (see Table 19.1). With respect to the interview questions, the proportion mentioning responsibility for one's self was higher than for any other criterion, in response to both questions (see Table 19.2).

Thus the idea of "responsibility" looms large in the conception of adulthood held by American emerging adults, and, for the most part, it is an individualistic kind of responsibility they endorse, responsibility for one's self rather than responsibility to or for others. The item in the questionnaire stated specifically, "accept responsibility for the consequences of your actions," and this view was expounded repeatedly in the interviews. Indeed, the questionnaire item was developed on the basis of pilot interviews in which responsibility was often placed in this context.3 Notice the contrast between this individualistic kind of responsibility and traditional cultures' criteria of provide, protect, and procreate, all of which involve responsibilities toward others (Gilmore, 1991). Marriage, too, carries definite responsibilities toward others—specifically, a marriage partner and his/her kin—particularly in traditional cultures.

Examples of emerging adults' responses from the interviews illustrate the individualistic nature of their conception of responsibility. One 24-year-old man stated that becoming an adult means "just being accountable for your actions and being responsible. I describe it as taking care of your own actions, and not looking to other people to help you along." A 28-year-old woman was similarly concise and individualistic, explaining that she felt she had reached adulthood "because I finally realized that I'm responsible for everything that I do and say and believe, and no one else is. Just me. That's all. So, I'm an adult."

Thus, responsibility is seen as the key to adult status because it has such strong connotations of self-sufficiency and self-reliance. The prominence of this criterion reflects the individualistic cultural beliefs of American society. In this society, accepting responsibility for one's self is the character quality that is essential to the attainment of adult status.

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