Not Quite Adults By Richard Settersten, Ph.D., and Barbara E. Ray

Why 20-somethings are choosing a slower path to adulthood, and why it's good for everyone
Friday, February 18th, 2011
book jacket
People have complained about the next generation not getting its act together since the beginning of recorded history. And it's true, each generation faces different challenges than the ones that came before. Whether social, technological or financial, the changes allow kids to tell their parents that they just don't understand.

The Millennials, people born between 1980 and 2000, have seen extreme shifts in technology, society, parenting and the economy. Their reactions to the changes have been captured by the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood and Public Policy. By parsing a series of interviews the MacArthur group conducted with 500 young people and their own follow-up research, the authors attempt to answer the question, "What's the matter with kids today?"

A sociological study of baby-boomer parenting, Not Quite Adults, could be very dry reading, but it's good stuff. The old measure of adulthood is a person who has left the family house (one half of today's eighteen to twenty-four year olds have not yet done that), gone to college, gotten job-training or joined the military followed by getting a job, marrying, having kids and getting involved in the community. This used to be accomplished by about twenty-five. Kids today are often still trying to get through college at twenty-five.

We've known for a while how important a college degree is, and the authors' statistics give exact measures of income and hireability for this generation. Their finding: college is more important than ever - the kids in this generation know that, they've been hearing it their whole lives. The problem is that many have not been prepared for college and the impact of some college with no degree and a great deal of student loan debt is proving to be crippling for a large number of these kids.

Settersten and Ray group the young people in the studies into two groups: the swimmers and the treaders.  Those with strong study skills, financial and emotional support are generally swimmers and kids with no college prep, no goals and no safety nets are usually treaders. Two significant changes have led us to this place. One is the country's loss of those high-paying, benefit-rich blue-collar jobs that didn't require a college degree. The other is the rise of the very supportive, well-connected parent. These parents have made their kids so competitive with AP classes, elite high schools, college admission coaches, and friends of friends who can insure summer internships that ordinary kids can't keep up.

Young people with no family support-either because they have traditional, hands-off "let the kid figure it out" parents or parents with no college themselves and no understanding of the process, can still thrive. The key is finding a network that will bring connections for jobs and internships, and give emotional support. The authors believe that Internet social networks will prove to be a boon to these kids. Treaders tend to be just as connected to online communities as swimmers. They expand their exposure to political social issues, increase their understanding of a variety of views and improve their job opportunities. Going forward, the authors suggest that "friends of friends of friends" are going to be as important in a person's success as a supportive family.

The authors believe that college-like experiences will be helpful to kids to who are not prepared for college. Any group living experience such as the Peace Corps will expand their world-view and help them understand people different from themselves. That is a big take away from college life that helps young people form a broader understanding of society and life.

If you are a young adult, if you have a young adult, if you know a young adult, pick this book up. Well-written, timely and instructive, it's also a fun read.

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