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How to Ease the Path to Adulthood

Uncertainty, confusion and psychological stress have always accompanied the tempest-tossed process of maturation. Here’s how to make that problematic journey smoother.

July 5, 2022

Nothing goes out of date faster than a scholarly history book.

This is, of course, a terrible shame. It not only leads junior scholars to disregard earlier scholarship and attempt to reinvent the wheel, but it means that alternate methodologies, sources and conceptual and interpretive frameworks are often considered out of date and are therefore overlooked.

A quarter century ago, Harvey J. Graff, a leading historian of literacy, published a fascinating study of the trajectories that American youth in four distinct historical eras navigated as they made the tangled transition to adulthood.

Conflicting Paths, which drew upon some 500 published and unpublished autobiographies, diaries, memoirs and personal letters to capture the subjective experience of young people as they matured, underscored the uncertainties, confusions and challenges the young encountered in their divergent paths to adulthood.

Biases in the extant first-person sources limited what Graff could say about the poor and the working class and nonwhites. Nevertheless, he was able to identify a multiplicity of pathways into adult status as well as how individuals made sense of their personal experience and crafted their distinctive, individual life story.

Especially intriguing were the stark contrasts between the twisted, messy realities of growing up and various culture myths and stereotypes that established certain normative expectations that few young people’s lives actually conformed to.

His overarching historical argument is threefold:

  1. The transition to adulthood has always varied widely along multiple lines; there has never been a uniform process of growing up.
  2. Over the past three centuries, social class, more and more, came to shape the journey to adulthood, even as the significance of region, ethnicity and even gender receded.
  3. Growing up has never been easy; it has always been filled with uncertainties, reversals and intense psychological stress. To assume that growing up was once linear and seamless is a grossly misleading historical myth.

Today, the path to maturity is at least as diverse and certainly as complex, contradictory and convoluted as it was earlier in American history. Class remains vitally important, but so, too, do the various intersectional identities that color young people’s opportunities, aspirations, expectations and perception of their options, heavily influence their emotions and mind-set, and define the resources and support structures that they can tap as they make crucial life decisions.

During the last century, the United States, at enormous public expense, constructed a set of educational institutions that were supposed to ease the transition to adulthood, making it more uniform, predictable, well sequenced and successful.

But as a series of recently released reports reveal:

  • The nation’s education-to-work pipeline is extremely leaky, especially for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Those who lack postsecondary education or training and a credential are unlikely to land a good job.
  • The process of securing a stable, well-paying, quality job now takes much longer than in the past and typically doesn’t occur until young adults reach their 30s, delaying marriage and home purchases and increasing the likelihood that various life problems will disrupt the transition to a financially secure adulthood.
  • The rising cost of postsecondary education, limited access to high-quality workplace training and the absence of comprehensive counseling and career navigation services reinforce persistent disparities along lines of gender, ethnicity and race.

A study from the Brookings Institution, entitled “Diverging employment pathways among young adults,” reports that nearly 60 percent of those young people who experienced economic disadvantage in adolescence struggle financially during adulthood, with average annual incomes of $19,000 or less.

Contributors to their problems include very high rates of incarceration, early childbearing and low levels of education. In contrast, military service is strongly associated with upward economic mobility, partly because of the supports and benefits it offers, including job training, subsidized childcare, tuition assistance and health care—suggesting the kinds of support services that might make a big difference in reducing poverty rates.

A series of reports from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce on the uncertain pathway from youth to a good job underscore several essential findings:

  • That disparities in educational attainment and in access to high-quality training are “calcifying” class divides, restricting upward mobility and contributing to class resentments.
  • That while advanced education matters, field of study, degree or program choice, and college attended also contribute to opportunity, earnings and economic mobility.
  • That while more than six in 10 Asian American and white men in the labor force succeed in obtaining a secure, decently paying job, the figure among Hispanic women was just 29 percent.

What, then, are the implications of these studies for two- and four-year colleges? Among CEW’s recommendations are these:

  • Improve career counseling and make sure it’s based on timely job market data.
  • Offer credit-bearing courses in education and career planning.
  • More equitably fund educational and training programs.
  • Introduce incremental or stackable credentialing, to allow students to add to their credentials over time.
  • Expand the number of applied, career-focused bachelor’s programs in community colleges.
  • Implement a more seamless transfer process.

There are other steps to take, such as rethinking licensure and certification requirements.

In a recent opinion essay, Ryan Craig, the author of College Disrupted and A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College, speaks out against the excessively aggressive licensing requirements that are all too often used to restrict entry into modestly skilled but decent-paying jobs and that have become major impediments to upward mobility.

The examples he cites are not just the usual suspects, like hair braiding or interior design, but various health-care support roles, like physical therapist assistant, which currently requires five semesters of courses in anatomy, physiology, exercise physiology, biomechanics, kinesiology, neuroscience, clinical pathology and behavioral science—even though the assistant role is limited to helping patients exercise and recording their progress. As Craig notes, they can perform those tasks only under the direct supervision of a licensed physical therapist. Yet the cost of such a program can exceed $100,000.

Craig’s takeaway: in cases like this one, professional associations and colleges are imposing unnecessary degree requirements not to ensure safety but to feather their own nests.

He ends his piece with a hope that colleges will become more mission- and civic-minded and not place institutional self-interest ahead of students’ interests. Hear! Hear!

The path to adulthood has never been easy, but as it grows ever longer and more circuitous, it is imperative that colleges reimagine their in loco parentis responsibilities. Too often, we think of those supervisory and protective obligations in narrow legal terms designed to minimize an institution’s potential liability in cases of harm. But colleges’ duty of care should go well beyond the prevention of harassment, assault, hazing or suicide. Much as directors or officers of a corporation have a fiduciary responsibility to pursue their firm’s best interests, educators have a moral duty to act in their students’ best interests. That means:

  • Providing a highly supportive learning environment that prioritizes belonging, advising, counseling, mentoring, supplemental learning support services and regular substantive feedback from faculty members.
  • Offering an education that goes beyond today’s gen ed and major requirements but promotes students’ holistic growth—interpersonal, moral and social as well as cognitive—and prepares them for a career and the demands and challenges of adult life.
  • Creating an education that gives students opportunities to apply and create knowledge and engage in authentic, real-world tasks by themselves and as members of a team.

During the early post–World War II era, becoming an adult was a one-time, all-at-once, irreversible, once-and-forever event. Today, in contrast, it’s an elongated process, filled with false starts, reversals, setbacks, stumbling blocks and lots of experimentation. It’s a process without a well-defined road map or widely accepted norms. For parents and young people alike, it’s a bewildering, pressure-packed process with lots of chances to fall of the rails.

In this highly ambiguous, uncertain environment, it’s more important than ever that faculty remember the Old English roots of the word “teacher.” That word, tæcan, means to show, point out, warn and persuade—in other words, to support, guide and counsel.

In your research, be an expert, a specialist and a professional. But as an instructor, be a mentor and ensure that your classes are about growth as well as content.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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