The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Growing Up Too Fast—Without Dad

Progressives never tire of professing their concern for children.  However, their indifference to intact parental marriages is actually putting many children at grave risk as they take on adult roles for which they are not prepared.  The magnitude and character of this risk receive sobering attention in a study recently completed by researchers at Colgate University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

To map the psychological paths young people travel into adulthood, the researchers analyze data collected between 1995 and 2002 from a nationally representative sample of young adults ages 18 to 22.  In these data, the researchers limn the outlines of four identity profiles, each defined by a distinctive relationship between a young person’s actual maturational level and his or her subjective perception of his relative adulthood.

Characterized by notably high psychosocial maturation and comparably high subjective sense of adulthood, the “early adults” account for almost one-third (31%) of the young people in this study.  In contrast, the “late adults”—scoring low on both psychosocial maturation and subjective adulthood—account for just one-fifth (20%) of the young people surveyed.  “Anticipatory adults”—young people who score high on psychological maturation but low on subjective adulthood—make up about one-quarter (23%) of the sample studied by the researchers.  Finally, “pseudo-adults”—scoring high on subjective adulthood but low on psychological adulthood—constitute slightly more than one-quarter (27%) of the young people surveyed.

The “anticipatory adults”—whose psychosocial maturation signals a readiness to take on adulthood responsibilities even though they do not consider themselves fully adult—do not particularly worry the researchers.  Their identity profile exposes them to relatively few risks.

But the researchers express concerns about the “early adults” and even more serious concerns about the “pseudo-adults,” the two most common profiles in the study (together accounting for 58% of the young people surveyed).  After all, a recent psychological study  indicates that “precocious maturation and identity development are linked with depression in young adulthood.”  Other studies have established that “engaging in maladaptive behavior (such as drugs, violence, early sexual experience) is associated with feeling older and more mature.”

The researchers fear the plight of “pseudo-adults”—young people who “lay claim to adult status but do not measure up to it on psychosocial maturity.”  These young people, the researchers warn, may prove vulnerable to the “problem behavior” of the sort predicted by “low maturity, and older subjective age” in other studies.

Evident in both “early adults” and “pseudo-adults,” a precocious sense of adulthood may now be widespread among young Americans, the researchers believe, because of “exposure to media images of adult liberties unaccompanied by the experience of responsibilities.  In self-definition, adult rights are not coupled with responsibilities, expectations, and positive regard from parents.”

What predicts the perils of precocious adulthood?  The researchers trace a clear linkage between these perils and broken families, calculating that young adults growing up in something other than a two-biological-parent home run a 26 % higher odds of developing an “early adult” profile than do peers growing up with two biological parents.  (Statistical significance of family structure calculated at p < 0.001 in the full analytical model.)  “Pseudo-adults,” the researchers find, “tend to be female and come from non-intact families.”  (Statistical significance of family structure calculated at p < 0.01 in the full analytical model.)

In contrast, growing up in intact families protects young people from the dangers of precocious adulthood.  Compared to peers growing up in other circumstances, young people growing up with both biological parents are 63% more likely to become “late adults” and 32% more likely to become “anticipatory adults.”  (Statistical significance of family structure in the full analytical model calculated at p < 0.001 for “late adults” and p < 0.01 for “anticipatory adults.”)

Understandably, the researchers see “those in the most vulnerable situations tending to move into adulthood earlier than their more advantaged counterparts.”  Young people not living with both biological parents, they note, must often deal with “increased household responsibilities, which are also associated with accelerated subjective aging and economic deprivation.”  The researchers further remark that “single-parent families tend to have fewer financial and emotional resources compared to two-parent families.  Thus, they may be less equipped to foster the development of psychosocial maturation than two-parent families.”

No doubt progressives will continue to pride themselves on their concern for children—while continuing to favor policies that subvert parental marriages, so pushing children into adulthood ill-prepared for adult responsibilities.

(Janel E. Benson and Glen H. Elder, “Young Adult Identities and Their Pathways: A Developmental and Life-Course Model,” Developmental Psychology 47.6 [2011]: 1,646-57.)