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A psychological twist on the news.

Deciding to be Adults

How soon do adolescents make choices about their adult lives? Are they ready?

How early should adolescents start thinking about taking up adult roles?  While that awkward stage known as adolescence can be uncomfortable, being halfway between childhood and adulthood means making choices about when to become an adult.   All too often, adolescents find themselves rebelling against cultural and biological expectations of how soon they should become sexually active, leave school, get married etc.    Sadly, many societies often force these choices on children before they are really ready to understand the full implications (including girls being forced into marriage as young as twelve years old in some countries).    Even in industrialized countries, there can be significant gender differences with boys and girls facing pressure over making adult role transitions, especially concerning career choices and marriage. 

For most adolescents, expectations about future career paths and how they will see themselves as adults are shaped by different experiences as adolescents.    How well adolescents do in school, both in terms of grades and positive teacher feedback influences career choices as well as later decisions to delay marriage until completing university.    Involvement in serious romantic relationships can influence adolescents to marry and have children earlier rather than later.     For both males and females, these life courses can be very different, again based on cultural and social expectations.   Females are more likely to marry and have children earlier than males and they are typically expected to have the primary responsibility for childcare and other family responsibilities.    Girls are also far more likely than boys to understand the necessary tradeoffs involved.

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But how do the expectations about the right age to marry, have children, or other adult roles affect the kind of life choices adolescents make?   For girls more than boys, early entry into parenthood interferes with later education while the decision to continue education usually means delaying other life choices.  

While there has been considerable research into the different factors that can influence the decisions that adolescents make in shaping their adult lives, a new study published in Developmental Psychology takes a look at how expectations about life timing can play a critical role in those decisions as well.    The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, looked at a sample of rural adolescents who were followed over a ten-year period extending from Grade Nine through to young adulthood.    The adolescents participating in the study completed an annual written survey during their high school years (collected by the project staff directly) followed by mail surveys after the students graduated.  Along with information on gender, age, and family background, adolescents were questioned about their expected age for completing school, getting a job, getting married, and having children.    They were also questioned about their attitudes on gender roles.   In the later stage of the study, the adult subjects were questioned about their actual age when they graduated, got a job, got married, etc. 

According to the study results, the average age that the rural adolescents expected to complete their education and enter the work force was 21,  marriage by 23, and having children by 25.    By Grade Twelve, boys expected to marry and have children later than girls did  (mean expected age for boys was 24.35 as opposed to 22.97 for girls).   Compared with boys, girls were more likely to have better grades, more egalitarian gender role attitudes, and higher educational expectations.     Not surprisingly, adolescents who expected to continue their education and marry at a later age were less likely to be married by the time of the later follow-up in adulthood.   There was also a strong correlation between parental educational level and career expectations for adolescent. 

The researchers found that boys and girls anticipated progressively older ages of finishing their education and becoming parents as they progressed through high school.   For both boys and girls,  the decision to postpone graduation and marriage appeared linked to the recognition of the amount of education needed to obtain good jobs.  Since the local economy was going through an economic downturn at the time the study was conducted, the researchers suggested that this may have had an impact on the life choices made.   Overall, adolescents with more egalitarian role attitudes were more likely to anticipate delaying marriage and becoming parents while having a steady relationship did not appear to have as strong an influence as expected.

Another unsurprising finding was that better grades and higher education aspirations was strongly associated with later anticipated ages for all adult life transitions.  This reflected previous research and showed that many of the life decisions adolescents make can be in place as young as Grade Nine in some cases.

The researchers conducting the study warn that their results might not generalize that well to adolescents in other communities.   Still, the results do show that high school is an important time when adolescents start making plans for the future and setting the stage for their adult lives.  More importantly perhaps, adolescence is a time when the templates that shape adult life become internalized and the life choices that young people make can affect their ability to put their plans into effect.  Gender role attitudes have also been shown to have a far greater effect than you might think, especially for girls making decisions about their futures. 

Though gender role attitudes and career expectations can vary significantly depending on cultural, economic and social factors, adolescents need proper resources to help them make the hard choices about their adult lives.   Whether these resources are provided in school or at home, depriving adolescents of the help they need to make the right choices can  have far more damage than you might think.

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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