Introduction

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.

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