It’s not exactly news, but a report from Princeton University and the Brookings Institution highlights the well-established trend of “delayed adulthood” as people in their twenties prolong their education and fail to reach the milestones of marriage and parenthood.

Actually, this could be more a delay in financial and social independence than in an adult attitude to life: a twenty-something student or worker can be very responsible without having married or while still living in the family home. However, delayed economic independence and family formation have consequences not only for individuals and their families but for the whole of society, as research by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood shows.

At family level there is an increased economic burden on the parents of “emerging adults”. In the United States, people between the ages of 18 and 34 received an average of $38,000 in cash and two years’ worth of full-time labour from their parents, or about 10 per cent of their income. This seems to be true across the socio-economic spectrum and has shifted spending away from children in their teens to those in their twenties. It increases stress on middle-class and poor families, and leaves an unknown number of less well-off youth in difficulties, says the Transitions study leader, Frank F Furstenberg, in a report released by Princeton and Brookings:

When families cannot help out, youth are often left to flounder on their own. There is a pressing need for publicly provided health care, education and training, and social services for youth whose families cannot support them as they navigate the passage to economic self-sufficiency.

But society is already struggling to meet the dependency needs of seniors, and cutting back at that level may be counter-productive, Furstenberg continues:

At a societal level, the United States and the rest of the developed world face a growing policy dilemma: the need to invest in children and youth while continuing to support the economic, health, and social needs of a growing population aged sixty-five and older. The dilemma has been largely managed so far by family exchange from the elderly to the young. The current public system of support for seniors is underfinanced, however, and many observers are talking about the need to reduce Social Security benefits to preserve the system. Cutting back on those benefits, though, may have unforeseen consequences for the ability of parents to invest in their young adult children. With less support from their parents, the middle generation may be required to cut back on their support for their own children to help out their parents. Low-income families, especially, may face competing demands from elderly parents and their young adult offspring.

This in turn could make young adults even less willing to form families of their own and ultimately impact on the workforce and social security:

Is it possible that the new job description for parents—the requirement that they provide greater support for children over longer periods—might discourage couples from having additional children or even having children at all? It does not seem farfetched to suggest that couples may begin to factor the long-term responsibilities of rearing children into their planning for their own retirement. If the economic burdens of rearing children become intolerable, potential parents may elect not to assume those costs. Such family decisions would lead to lower total fertility and ultimately reduce the workforce, thus further aggravating the problem of providing both for the elderly and for the young.

Well, what is to be done? It’s clear that public spending is not the whole answer. There are many factors to consider, including job market uncertainties — particularly as they affect working-class men — and the way working conditions impact on family life. Furstenberg’s approach is comprehensive but perhaps too wedded to the idea of later marriages — with all the negatives that this trend has produced: years of sexual activity before marriage, high numbers of abortions, increasing out-of wedlock births (40 per cent of all births, currently), children growing up without fathers, serial cohabitation and non-marriage…

Of course, we do not want “hasty marriages”, and not everyone is going to be married, but wouldn’t the nearer prospect of marriage and (then) having children provide a goal for adolescents in general that would promote maturity and, for the majority, more focused educational and work choices?

Would not a social focus on timely marriages and the value of families based on marriage — with economic policies to match — have positive flow-on effects for the whole of society?

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet