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Coming of Age in America: The Transition to Adulthood in the Twenty-First Century / Edition 1

Coming of Age in America: The Transition to Adulthood in the Twenty-First Century / Edition 1

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What is it like to become an adult in twenty-first-century America? This book takes us to four very different places—New York City, San Diego, rural Iowa, and Saint Paul, Minnesota—to explore the dramatic shifts in coming-of-age experiences across the country. Drawing from in-depth interviews with people in their twenties and early thirties, it probes experiences and decisions surrounding education, work, marriage, parenthood, and housing. The first study to systematically explore this phenomenon from a qualitative perspective, Coming of Age in America offers a clear view of how traditional patterns and expectations are changing, of the range of forces that are shaping these changes, and of how young people themselves view their lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520270930
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/20/2011
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Mary C. Waters is M.E. Zukerman Professor of Sociology at Harvard University. She is author most recently of The Next Generation: Immigrant Youth in Comparative Perspective, and of Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America (UC Press), among other books. Patrick J. Carr is Associate Professor at Rutgers University. He is the author of Clean Streets: Controlling Crimes, Maintaining Order, and Building Community Activism and Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America. Maria J. Kefalas, Professor in the Department of Sociology at Saint Joseph's University, is the author of Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage (UC Press) among other books. Jennifer Holdaway is Program Director and China Representative at the Social Science Research Council. She is the author most recently of Environment and Health in China: Cross-disciplinary Perspectives.

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Coming of Age in America

The Transition to Adulthood in the Twenty-First Century

By Mary C. Waters, Patrick J. Carr, Maria J. Kefalas, Jennifer Holdaway


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95018-4


Straight from the Heartland

Coming of Age in Ellis, Iowa


In 2001, we followed in the footsteps of Robert and Helen Lynd, the husband-and-wife ethnographers who studied Muncie, Indiana, for the landmark Middletown series, and moved our family to a farming community in the northeastern corner of Iowa, a town we have renamed Ellis to protect the inhabitants' confidentiality. We wanted to learn as much as we could about how young rural Iowans navigate this time between adolescence and adulthood and how growing up in rural settings shapes these young people's life chances.

Ellis (population 2,000) is located in the northeastern part of the state in Liberty County. Although Ellis does not have a stoplight—and any small-town dweller can tell you that the number of stoplights is one way to take the measure of a town's size—it does have its own high school, two gas stations, a local grocery store, several churches, and two taverns. The median price of a house in Ellis is about $68,000, with some more modest homes, namely mobile homes in trailer parks, priced as low as $30,000, not much more than the cost of a new car.

Ellis is noteworthy neither for its historical significance nor for its scenic beauty. With a water tower bearing the town's name hovering just beyond Main Street, grain elevators, a John Deere dealership, and farms perched on the town's outskirts, Ellis has the look and feel of a farming community "with its roots deep in the land" (Davidson 1996, 1). But one must remember that Iowa's farming towns are not exactly what they seem, given that few people still depend solely on corn and soybeans for their livelihood (Davidson 1996).

Despite the economic and demographic upheavals of the last two decades that have transformed so many towns throughout the rural Midwest, Ellis appears to have weathered the storm well. It is home to several factories, a small hospital, and a nursing home. These employers, along with a sprinkling of smaller construction companies, have helped wean the town from its dependence on agriculture. Also, on the plus side of the equation, Ellis has an extremely effective core of civic activists who are responsible for constructing a state-of-the-art public library, a recreation center, and a local outdoor swimming pool. Community leaders recently renovated and reopened the town's movie theater, which had lain dormant for more than a decade.

Ellis is in good shape economically and civically, for now. If one of the major local employers were to go out of business, however, the town might not survive another decade. Even though things seem stable, the harsh reality is that local opportunities are limited and new jobs at one of the factories are few and far between. Moreover, the careers that attract professional, college-educated young people really only exist beyond the town's limits (see, for instance, Crockett and Bingham 2000; Hektner 1995; Ni Laoire 2000; Stockdale 2002, 2004).

Small-town America is supposed to be the place where normalcy and tradition reign supreme. And indeed we found that young people in Iowa were much more likely to follow a "traditional" transition to adulthood than are other young people nationally, or the other young people in the cities represented in this book. Some of the Iowans we studied seem frozen in time—many of them experiencing the lightning-fast transition to adulthood that mirrors their grandparents' generation. Indeed, they fit what Wayne Osgood and his collaborators call fast-starters (Osgood et al. 2005; see also Jekielek and Brown 2005). The markers of being a fast-starter—age at first marriage, for example—vary widely by geography. In Iowa, the median age at first marriage is 24 for women and 25 for men, which is just a year below the national average of 26 for men and 25 for women. On average, people in rural states, particularly southern ones, have more marriages, and these usually happen earlier in life. In Arkansas, for instance, over a third of 18- to 24-year-old women are married, compared to Massachusetts, where approximately 13 percent are. Iowa occupies a middle ground with just over one-fifth of the young women in this age group being married. In our Ellis sample, the average age for first marriage was approximately 23. Considering that nationally almost 49 percent of young people between 18 and 24 still live at home with their parents, it is notable that in Iowa just 36 percent of men and only 29 percent of women in this age group do so. On average, Ellis fast-starters, many of whom remain in and around the community, settle quickly into long-term full-time employment, establish separate households, very often purchasing their first homes by age 25, a time of life when their college-educated peers may be struggling to find their first full-time job. Though the average age at first marriage continues to rise nationally, a young Ellis woman who "waited" to wed at 23 explained, "Around here 24 is old to be getting married."

Meanwhile, the young Iowans in our study who left the region follow paths more similar to their urban and suburban counterparts: extended education, delayed family formation, and hopscotching from job to job as they explore options. The question is, then, what is it about small rural towns that sets some young adults on pathways to adulthood that are more aligned with those of their parents and grandparents than with those of their own contemporaries, while others mimic the more elongated transitions of their urban and suburban counterparts? What is it about rural America that allows (or makes) some kids to "grow up" so fast?

Understanding what it means to come of age in small-town America is not inconsequential. Roughly one in five Americans lives in a nonmetropolitan area. More importantly, the forces pulling some young people to stay and pushing others to leave have important lessons for policy makers and social scientists interested in how opportunity, social reproduction, and community contour rural youths' life chances. Unlike the often simplistic view of rural America that the media perpetuates, we find that the story of how rural youths become adults features a complex interplay of economic forces, early influences from family, community, and social institutions, and personal desires. Many of the young people in our sample distinguished themselves from their urban peers by their early economic independence and socialization into the world of work during their teenaged years; in the cultivation by personal boosters beyond their parents in terms of teachers, coaches, or the entire community; by a strong preference to see the world (for those who leave) or an equally strong (if more rarely articulated) preference for staying put; to an overriding pragmatism toward life, love, and work. This is at odds with the findings of psychologist Jean Twenge (2006), who argues that platitudes such as "believe in yourself and anything is possible" make many of today's twenty- and thirty somethings out of touch with reality.


As we set out to study how rural youth navigate the transition to adulthood, we decided to focus on two groups of young adults from Ellis: the mature transition group (those ten years out of high school) and the recent transition group (those five years out). Selecting these two groups allowed us to study young people who have mostly settled into adult roles as well as those still in the process of acquiring the roles and responsibilities. In late 2001 and early 2002, we worked with the staff at Ellis High School to compile lists of the incoming freshmen classes for the years 1986–1988 and 1991–1993. We used the freshmen lists because we wanted to include any young people who might have dropped out of high school later in their careers.

We distributed a survey to all of the people on the freshmen lists and collected completed questionnaires from 275 young people, about 81 percent, of the eligible former students. To clarify, the survey response rate was 81 percent of students who had entered the high school as freshmen. We did not seek interviews with young people who moved away and completed high school in another community or with visiting foreign exchange students. We did, however, complete surveys with those young people who dropped out of high school and those who dropped out and completed a GED.

Armed with the survey data, we identified specific individuals for in-depth interviews to capture a wide range of experiences. Over a span of nearly two years, we conducted 104 interviews, and we spoke with young people who had dropped out of high school, faced bouts of unemployment, married and divorced, spent time in jail, abused drugs, bore children as teenagers and outside of marriage, and relied on public assistance. We also spoke with who had attended four- and two-year colleges (whether they graduated or not), served in the military, and pursued postbaccalaureate and graduate-level training. To learn about work and economic opportunities, we spoke with young people employed in a range of occupations, from doctors working and living in Cedar Rapids' affluent suburbs to factory workers in the meat processing plants struggling to make payments on trailer homes. Finally, to learn about family life, we talked with young people in various stages of family formation, married couples, unmarried parents, and unattached singles. While it might have been convenient to interview only the young people who had stayed in or returned to Iowa, we made a special effort to seek out those whose lives had taken them far away from the small town where they had grown up. By the time we concluded the in-depth interview phase of the project, we had spoken with Ellis youth living in fourteen states across the nation, on each coast and in many places in between. In fact, we received survey responses from former Ellis High students now living in twenty-one states and five countries.


Much of the research on the life course has focused on how major events shape people's lives. Glen Elder's (1984) classic work on children coming of age during the Great Depression shows how social upheavals play a profound role in shaping the pathways of young lives. In the same way, we can point to several macrolevel events that form the larger context in which these young Iowans grow up; they include the farm crisis, the shift to a technology-based economy, and the rapid expansion of postsecondary educational opportunities, especially for women.

The young people we interviewed have a unique perspective on the changes transforming their communities. Most were born during the 1970s, which meant they experienced the farm crisis during their teenage years (see Elder and Conger 2000). Jonathan, a 24-year-old college graduate now working in Washington, DC, as a school administrator, grew up on a dairy farm, which was hit hard in the 1980s. "The price of milk was always a topic of conversation amongst my parents," he said. "When the price of milk was good, there was a lot of money coming in." But if the price went down, "times were tough," and necessities, like clothes, "would have to last for a couple of years." Other people spoke of the calamities brought on by the farm crisis. Rose, a 30-year-old homemaker and former schoolteacher now living in an upscale Maryland suburb, recounted how leaving the land destroyed farming families she had known. "I had a couple of friends whose parents committed suicide. [For these people], you grow up, you live there, you know nothing else [but farming], and then everything crumbles ... you've failed, and it's the only way of life you've ever known."

A second major transformation influencing Iowans' lives was the shift from a blue-collar economy to a high-tech one. Between 2000 and 2009, Iowa lost more than 54,000 manufacturing jobs, over 20 percent of the total number of factory jobs in the state (Ford 2010). In an economy that values specialized expertise, educational qualifications and certification become ever more important. Even semiskilled and service occupations now demand basic computer literacy. Many of the young Iowans we interviewed were in high school before such computer classes were compulsory. Trevor, a 26-year-old high school graduate who works near Ellis as a mechanic, now realizes that his education prepared him for an industrial-era economy, not a technology-driven one. The school "should have tried to make a computer class required. [If] you asked me anything about a computer, I wouldn't have a clue." Jasper, a 31-year-old machine operator with a high school education, summed up the dilemma of the digital divide: "Nowadays, everything is so much computer that you either are going to be a laborer or you're going to be on your butt behind a computer. You got to do one or the other. And if you're not good at reading and writing like I am [not], you'd better learn some of those alternatives."

As digital technology changed how and what we learn, the importance of a college degree grew significantly. During the last three decades, as the number of full- and part-time student enrollments rose by 30 percent, going to college shifted from a pursuit of the most privileged young people to the typical experience for many young people 18 and older. The expansion of opportunities for a college education, especially at community colleges, took hold at the very moment our oldest Iowans were in high school. Indeed, in our interviews, we were struck by the incredible range of post–secondary-school educational experiences our young Iowans spoke about. Only about 18 percent of our respondents failed to go on to any form of study or training after high school. Many of them experienced pressure from the school, the community, and their own families to pursue higher education in one form or another. Even students with the weakest academic records made an effort to attend a one-year program at one of the nearby community colleges. Another option was the military. For a town with a population of just over 2,000, Ellis sends an impressive number of its young men and women to serve in the armed forces. Indeed, the military is still one of the most important ways out of small towns like Ellis.

Large-scale economic forces have shaped not just the look and feel of towns like Ellis, but also the nature of what people do there. In recent years, rural regions' economic bellwethers—manufacturing, agriculture, and mining—have been systemically challenged by global competition and technological change (Freudenberg 1992). Since the downturns in the rural economy have seeped, rather than swept, through small-town America, the "rural collapse has been largely silent because it happened so slowly" (Egan 2002, B1). The massive upheaval in river, railroad, and farming towns means that places like Ellis must reinvent themselves to hold on to young people (Hobbs 1994). Iowa now has the fourth-oldest population in the nation, with a median age of 38 years. From 1995 to 2000, almost a quarter of the state's college grads moved out of state upon finishing their degree. Depopulation—particularly among the region's educated twentysomethings—means that Iowa will face severe shortages of educated workers in the next two decades.

Ellis has already seen evidence of depopulation. Since 1980, the town has lost 10 percent of its population and the median age of the town's residents has risen from 36 to 44 (Norman 2005). At the time we contacted them, approximately one-half of respondents were still living in Ellis and other parts of Liberty County, with one-quarter living elsewhere in the state and one-quarter having moved away from Iowa. However, the survey offers only a still photographic image of this complex, dynamic process. When we talked to young people about the twists and turns their lives had taken with regard to school, work, and family, we found that the most important moment, if becoming an adult can be conceived in terms of moments, takes shape in the decision to leave, stay, or return to small-town Iowa. According to our survey of young people who attended Ellis High School, 43.3 percent of them said that they currently reside in Ellis or elsewhere in Liberty County (where Ellis is located), while 30 percent said they live elsewhere in Iowa, and 26.9 percent reside outside of Iowa.

The reasons that young people give for their trajectories reveal as much about their own circumstances as they do about their conscious choices. As we combed through the thousands of pages of interview transcripts, we identified five separate but interconnected pathways. These pathways are grouped around the distinct trajectories of whether people stay in, return to, or leave Ellis to pursue their adult lives elsewhere. In the next section, we show how leaving, returning, and staying are key parts of our young Iowans' transition to adulthood and that their experiences as workers offer important clues about who stays and who goes.


Excerpted from Coming of Age in America by Mary C. Waters, Patrick J. Carr, Maria J. Kefalas, Jennifer Holdaway. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations, vii,
Acknowledgments, ix,
Introduction Mary C. Waters, Patrick J. Carr, and Maria J. Kefalas, 1,
1. Straight from the Heartland: Coming of Age in Ellis, Iowa Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, 28,
2. Transitions to Adulthood in the Land of Lake Wobegon Teresa Toguchi Swartz, Douglas Hartmann, and Jeylan T. Mortimer, 59,
3. If You Can Make It There ...: The Transition to Adulthood in New York City Jennifer Holdaway, 106,
4. Coming of Age in "America's Finest City": Transitions to Adulthood Among Children of Immigrants in San Diego Linda Borgen and Rubén G. Rumbaut, 133,
5. Becoming Adult: Meanings and Markers for Young Americans Richard A. Settersten Jr., 169,
6. Conclusion Maria J. Kefalas and Patrick J. Carr, 191,
Appendix: Methods, 205,
References, 225,
Contributors, 235,
Index, 237,

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"[The book's] tremendously rich portrait of young people's pathways provides keen insight into the intricacies, twists, and turns in the process of becoming adult."—American Journal of Sociology

"Impressive. . . . An excellent tool for discussions about adulthood and the road to adulthood for young adults."—Metapsychology Online Review

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