The University of Chicago News Office
May 9, 2003 Press Contact: William Harms
(773) 702-8356

Most Americans think people need to be 26 to be considered grown-up:
Seven steps toward adulthood take five years, NORC survey at University of Chicago finds

Although school graduation marks the most important milestone in maturing, most Americans feel that becoming an official grown-up is an involved process that takes more than five years, according to a study released Thursday the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

The report, “Coming of Age in 21st-Century America: Public Attitudes Towards the Importance and Timing of Transition to Adulthood,” examines seven stages of transition: completing education, being employed full-time, becoming financial independent, living independently of parents, becoming married, having a child, and supporting a family.

“There is a large degree of consensus across social groups on the relative importance of the seven transitions,” writes the report’s author, Tom W. Smith, Director of NORC’s General Social Survey. “The only notable pattern of differences is on views about supporting a family, having a child, and getting married. Older adults and the widowed and married rate these as more important than younger adults and the never married do.

“This probably reflects in large part a shift in values across generations away from traditional family values,” Smith adds. The report found that completing an education was the most valued step toward adulthood (73 percent found it extremely important). The other transitions were deemed important in this order: being employed full-time (61 percent), supporting a family (60 percent), being financial independent (47 percent), living independently of parents (29 percent), being married (19 percent), having a child (16 percent).

The report, based on the 2002 General Social Survey of 1,398 people in 2002, also determined when people generally expect young people to complete the transitions. Becoming self-supporting is the first step (20.9 years old); no longer living with parents (21.1); having a full-time job (21.2); completing schooling (22.3); being able to support a family financially (24.5); getting married (25.7), and having a child (26.2).

Although there was general agreement among most groups, there were differences based on education level and age:

  • College graduates are more likely than high school graduates to value living on one’s own as a sign of adulthood.
  • Marriage is considered more important among Hispanics than among non-Hispanics.
  • Jews and Catholics were more likely to value childbearing as a sign of adulthood.
  • Blacks favor earlier transitions than whites, and Jews favor later transitions than any other religious group.

The General Social Survey is an in-person survey of a representative sample of Americans over the age of 18. It is conducted every one to two years with support from the National Science Foundation. The questions about adulthood were supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Chicago.

The University of Chicago and the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) would like to stress that the study on transition to adulthood was sponsored and designed by the Network on the Transitions to Adulthood of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. For more information on this important study please contact the chairman of the MacArthur Network, Frank Furstenberg, Jr., at the University of Pennsylvania, Phone: 215-898-6718; Email:
Last modified at 01:55 PM CST on Friday, September 12, 2003.

University of Chicago News Office
5801 South Ellis Avenue - Room 200
Chicago, Illinois 60637-1473
(773) 702-8360
Fax: (773) 702-8324
Contact Us