Young Peoples Conceptions of Adulthood

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Jeffrey Jensen Arnett


When does a person become an adult in American society? How does the conception of the transition to adulthood held by today's young Americans compare to the conceptions held by people in traditional cultures and in previous centuries of American and Western society? Anthropologists have found that in most cultures, and particularly in the more traditional, non-Western cultures of the world, marriage is often designated explicitly as the event that marks the transition from boy to man and from girl to woman (Gilmore, 1990; Schlegel & Barry, 1991). Historically, too, in the United States and other Western countries, marriage has loomed large as the definitive transition to adulthood, at least until recently (Ben-Amos, 1994; Modell, 1989). But are there transitions other than marriage that have been viewed as an important part of the transition to adulthood, cross-culturally and historically? And how do these perspectives from other places and times compare to the perspectives of young people in the United States today?

In the course of this chapter I will address these questions by presenting conceptions of the transition to adulthood held by people in other places and times, based on the anthropological, sociological, and historical literatures. These perspectives will then be contrasted with research on conceptions of the transition to adulthood among today's young Americans in their teens and twenties. This analysis will show that there is substantial evidence that the transition to adulthood is widely regarded as a process extending over several years, including adolescence and sometimes an additional period beyond adolescence. However, in most places and times this gradual transition has been viewed as culminating in marriage, the quintessential transition event marking the attainment of adult status.

In contrast, the conception of the transition to adulthood held by the current generation of young people in American society rejects marriage and other role transitions as essential markers of adulthood, in favor of criteria that are distinctly individualistic. The criteria most important to young Americans as markers of adulthood are those that represent becoming independent from others (especially from parents) and attaining self-sufficiency. The three individualistic criteria that emerge repeatedly in studies of young Americans' conceptions of the transition to adulthood are accepting responsibility for one's self, making independent decisions, and financial independence.

In addition to being individualistic, I regard the capacities for accepting responsibility for one's self and for making independent decisions as qualities of character. By this I mean that they are qualities that are part of the individual's psychological and moral identity, so that they manifest themselves in a wide variety of situations. The term character has a moral connotation and these qualities are regarded in a distinctly moral light, as the right way for an adult to be and to behave.

We will see that other character qualities have been valued as part of the transition to adulthood in other places and times, for example qualities such as reliability, diligence, and (especially) impulse control. However, in other places and times marriage has held the status of the transition event that marked a definite, ritualized, unambiguous entry into adulthood, whatever character qualities a young person may have been required to develop in order to be considered ready for marriage. In contrast, for young Americans the transition to adulthood is considerably more indefinite and ambiguous because it is based principally on intangible qualities of character, and marriage is no longer regarded as the culminating event that marks the incontestable attainment of adulthood. As we will see, there is considerable consistency in this view of what it means to be an adult across ethnic groups in American society, although there are some variations. Similarly, evidence from other industrialized countries indicates that there is considerable cross-national consistency as well, again with some variations.


Other Places: Marriage and Gender Issues

According to anthropologists, marriage has long been almost universally regarded as the definitive transition to adulthood in traditional cultures worldwide (Schlegel & Barry, 1991). For many young people, this means making the transition to adulthood in the late teens or very early twenties. In Schlegel & Barry's (1991) analysis of adolescent development in 186 traditional/preindustrial cultures the typical marriage age was 18 for women and 20 for men.1 In such cultures, the timing of marriage (and therefore of the transition to adulthood it confers) is often chosen not by young people themselves but by their families, according to family interests and cultural expectations of the appropriate age of marriage. As Schlegel & Barry (1991) observe, "the length of adolescence . . . is determined in most societies by the age of marriage, which in turn is the consequence of decisions made by persons controlling the marriages of very young people, who are rarely in an economic or political position to make such determinations themselves" (p. 106).

One possible consequence of this traditional pattern is that young people may have found themselves designated as adults by their cultures, through marriage, before they would have considered themselves to have reached adulthood according to their individual perceptions of their developmental maturity. It is also possible that young people in traditional cultures "feel adult" earlier than young people in the United States and other industrialized societies, as a result of being given considerable work and family responsibilities from an early age (e.g., Whiting & Edwards, 1988). A third possibility is that young people in traditional cultures accept marriage as the ultimate marker of adulthood because they have been socialized to hold cultural beliefs that the guidelines for many aspects of life are set by the group rather than by the individual (Arnett, 1995; Triandis, 1995).

It is difficult to know which of these possible interpretations to favor because few anthropological studies have asked young people directly about their conceptions of adulthood. However, there are some suggestive sources of evidence. One important source is Susan and Douglas Davis' ethnography on adolescents in rural Morocco (Davis & Davis, 1989). They asked young people (aged 9-20) "How do you know you're grown up?" as part of their basic interview. They found that the two most prominent types of responses were (1) those that emphasized physical development or chronological age, and (2) those that emphasized character qualities the authors categorized as "behavioral, moral, or mental changes" (p. 52). Few of the young people mentioned marriage as a criterion, even though Davis & Davis state that in Moroccan culture generally, "after marriage, one is considered an adult" (p. 59). It should be noted that the question concerned being "grown up" rather than adulthood per se, and that their responses may reflect the increasing Westernization of Moroccan society. Nevertheless, the results suggest that further investigation of young people's conceptions of adulthood in various cultures may prove enlightening, and that their conceptions may not match the conception of adulthood held by adults.

Davis & Davis (1989) also reported evidence that Moroccan adults view the development of qualities of character as important in their conception of adolescence and the transition to adulthood. The key character quality in this conception is 'aql, an Arabic word with connotations of rationality and impulse control. To possess it means to be capable of making reasoned, informed judgments, and to have control over one's needs and passions. Moroccans see this as a quality expected of adults and often lacking in adolescents. Although both males and females are expected to develop 'aql in the course of adolescence, males are viewed as taking a decade longer to develop it fully, perhaps because females take on greater responsibilities at an earlier age, as they do in most traditional cultures (Schlegel & Barry, 1991).

Kirkpatrick's (1987) ethnography of the people of the Marquesas Islands of Polynesia provides similar evidence of a conceptualization of the transition to adulthood that includes character qualities. In the Marquesas Islands, by age 14 girls and boys are working alongside adults and are considered to be capable of adult work. However, they are not yet considered to be adults, and not only because they have not yet married. They are also seen (by adults) as lacking the qualities of character necessary for adult status. The term taurearea is used to describe the lack of these qualities in adolescents. Translated by Kirkpatrick as "errant youth," it is a term that includes unreliability, laziness, and lack of impulse control. To become an adult, then, means growing out of taurearea by gradually developing the character qualities necessary for the fulfillment of adult role responsibilities.

Another source of evidence comes from Condon's (1987) ethnography on Inuit adolescents in the Canadian Arctic. Condon explored conceptions of the transition to adulthood by asking young people in their teens to assign life stage categories to various people in the community and explain the reason for their designations. Their responses reflected a variety of criteria for the transition to adulthood, including marriage, parenthood, chronological age, and employment. Most important was establishing a permanent pair-bond by moving into a separate household with a prospective spouse—a marriagelike relationship, but not necessarily involving a formal ceremony or legal tie. Chronological age also mattered; young people living with a prospective spouse but remaining in the parental household of one partner or the other were considered adults if they were beyond their teen years.

In addition, certain character qualities were viewed as distinguishing adolescents from adults. Adolescents spend a great deal of their time "running around," which means visiting each other at all hours of the day and night and (for the boys) playing team sports such as hockey, baseball, and football. Becoming an adult means developing character qualities of self-restraint, reliability, and seriousness of purpose. This is expected to be reflected in spending less time running around, and more time at home with one's spouse/partner and visiting other households accompanied by one's spouse/partner.

Evidence of the relationship between the development of character qualities and preparation for adult roles has been compiled by Gilmore (1990), who analyzed information from a variety of ethnographies in an effort to explore cross-cultural similarities and differences in conceptions of manhood and the passage from boyhood to manhood status. Gilmore concurred that marriage commonly marks the ultimate passage to manhood in traditional cultures around the world. However, he focused on the years of preparation for manhood, especially on the skills that are developed by boys during adolescence as preparation for taking on adult roles.

According to Gilmore's analysis, there are three capacities that boys in traditional cultures must develop in the course of adolescence in order to be considered fit to enter manhood: provide, protect, and procreate. They must learn to provide economically for themselves and for their wives and children. They learn this by acquiring the knowledge and skills that are necessary for economic performance in their culture—hunting, fishing, and farming are typical examples. They must learn to contribute to the protection of their family, kinship group, tribe, and other groups to which they belong, from attacks by human enemies and/or animal predators. They learn this by acquiring the skills of warfare. Also, they must learn to procreate, that is, they must gain some degree of sexual experience before marriage, so that in marriage they will be able to perform well enough sexually to produce children. Although Gilmore claims no similar set of requirements exist for girls in preparation for womanhood, Schlegel and Barry (1991) and other anthropologists (e.g., Chinas, 1991; Davis & Davis, 1989) have noted that girls in traditional cultures are typically expected to be capable of caring for children and running a household before they are considered to be ready for marriage and the adult status it confers.

In addition to the development of specific skills, the cultures described by Gilmore (1990) also require the development of qualities of character in tandem with those skills, in order for adult status to be obtained. Learning to provide requires the development of diligence and reliability. Learning to protect means cultivating courage and fortitude in battle. Learning to procreate requires boldness and confidence in heterosexual relations and sexual performance. For girls, too, learning to care for children and run a household means developing character qualities such as diligence and reliability.

In sum, anthropological studies indicate that many traditional cultures view marriage as the ultimate marker of the transition to adulthood. However, marriage is typically viewed not as the sole and isolated marker of adult status but as the culmination of a transition to adulthood lasting several years. The focus of this period is on the development of character qualities along with the development of gender-specific skills.

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