Modifications of the Individualistic Theme

Although the conception of the transition to adulthood held by adolescents and emerging adults is characterized by individualism, it is not necessarily an unbridled or selfish individualism. On the contrary, for many young people becoming an adult necessarily means that individualism is tempered by the development of character qualities that emphasize social and communal considerations. Egocentrism and selfishness are character qualities they see as part of adolescence, and becoming an adult means overcoming these tendencies and learning to take other people's interests and needs into account. Modifications of the individualistic theme fell into three general areas: consideration for others, avoiding reckless behavior, and becoming a parent.

Consideration for others was not included as a specific item on the questionnaire, but it came up often as a theme in the interviews. In response to the woman-girl man-boy question, it was the third most common theme. Being a man involves, to one 24-year-old man, "putting others in front of yourself. When you make a decision with others in mind before yourself, that probably makes you a man." A 28-year-old woman said that for her, becoming an adult means learning "not to be selfish, to take other people into account—their feelings, needs, and wishes."

In addition to cultivating a general sense of consideration for others, making the transition to adulthood also means avoiding behavior that might be harmful to others. On the questionnaire, three types of risk behavior concerning crime, sexual behavior, and automobile driving were viewed by a majority of participants as important to avoid as part of becoming an adult. The specific items were: "avoid committing petty crimes like shoplifting & vandalism" (endorsed by 66%), "use contraception if sexually active and not trying to conceive a child" (65%), and "avoid drunk driving" (55%). All three involve behavior that may affect others. In the interviews as well, avoiding various types of risk behavior was occasionally stated as an important criterion for adulthood, although it was not among the top criteria (see Table 19.2). For example, a 22-year-old woman who had recently been stopped by the police and charged with driving while intoxicated said the experience had "made me think about things . . . like drinking and driving, that you need to be responsible and not just think about where you want to go but how it's going to affect someone else."

The third kind of response that indicated a communal counterpoint to their individualistic conception of adulthood was becoming a parent. This was rated quite low on the questionnaire as a necessary marker of adulthood, endorsed by only 14% (see Table 19.1). However, in the interviews it ranked sixth highest in participants' responses concerning criteria they considered important in their own transition to adulthood (see Table 19.2). More importantly, one-fourth of the participants had had at least one child, and for them having a child was mentioned more often than any other criterion (61%) as a marker of their own transition to adulthood. (In contrast, those who were married were no more likely than those who were unmarried to name marriage as a key transition, either for themselves or more generally). This is consistent with other studies indicating that becoming a parent adds considerably to the sense of being adult for many people (Feldman, Biringen, & Nash, 1981; Galinsky, 1981). Many of the parents in the present study saw children as having the effect of puncturing one's egocentrism and directing one's concerns to others, in an inescapable and even involuntary way. "Children can definitely make you feel like an adult," said a 25-year-old woman with two children, "because you have responsibilities, and it's not so much myself anymore, because you have to raise someone else."

Unlike character qualities, which tend to develop gradually, having a child is an event that some describe as a sudden thrust into adulthood, as numerous weighty responsibilities descend simultaneously. "I have two daughters, and if you want to grow up fast, that's a sink or swim" said a 26-year-old man. "I went from happy-go-lucky to 'You've got a baby to take care of. You've got to put a roof over its head. You've got to do this and this and this.'" A 22-year-old woman responded to the question of whether she had reached adulthood by saying "With kids, definitely! Adulthood overnight, you know! [What is it about having kids?] The attention that you have to put on them. The focus is on them and not on you . . . You think of that other person before you think of yourself."

These comments suggest that young Americans may incorporate "provide" and "protect" into their conception of adulthood more centrally after they procreate (Gilmore, 1990). It is also worth noting here the prominence of parenthood as a criterion for adulthood in some traditional cultures (e.g. Herdt, 1987; Nsamenang, 1992; see Schlegel & Barry, 1991, p. 11). Perhaps parenthood would loom larger in American's conceptions of the transition to adulthood if it took place as early—the mid-to-late teens—as it does in most traditional cultures (Schlegel & Barry, 1991).

In sum, although the view of the transition to adulthood held by young people in their twenties is distinctly individualistic, it is not necessarily a selfish individualism. On the contrary, their individualism is often tempered in a number of ways that reflect sensitivity to and concern for the rights and needs of others. They are not egoists, but social individuals (Jensen, 1998).

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