This was written for Washington State University’s SOC-352 course on Youth & Society.
Thinking about contemporary U.S. society, what bases do we use for understanding whether someone is an adult?
I grew up in suburban then rural Virginia on the edges of Spotsylvania County and Culpepper in the 1980s and early 1990s—children, teen, and adult was a common differentiation. Contemporary U.S. society’s groupings of ages into adult/not-adult confers a master status which drives stereotype, prejudice, and discrimination (legal to illegal). Yet, how does one define what “contemporary” is with respect to society? Contemporary is recency, so it is here that it is valuable to approach the “bases” of a population’s understanding, a population of “we”. I think there are variances in norms of ascribing master statuses of adulthood with respect to whether someone achieves the status of adulthood as mediated by social facts. Yet conjecture and anecdote are one thing, and science and statistics are another. A clear choice in answering the question is to determine the bases of the population’s determination of adult. To do that, reliability of Furstenberg et al.’s (2004) efforts utilizing NORC’s General Social Survey (https://gss.norc.org) is ideal.
A Sociological Answer
Furstenberg et al. (2004) exactly considered the U.S. population through statistical inferencing, determining the U.S. population’s criterion for determining what an adult is. Researchers discovered that “we” (i.e., the contemporary population as of 2002), determined that a complete education, financial independence, full time work, ability to support a family, and to a lesser extent, leaving a parent’s home were primary factors determining adulthood (N=1,400; factors > 82% of respondents; p. 36). Older ideals that seemed prevalent in historical literature of getting married and having children only garnered 55% and 52% of respondents (p. 36). This all goes without saying that authority of media and science itself may be considered as bases for understanding, but the question best asks what the U.S. population uses as bases, therefore Furstenberg et al.’s efforts in a 2002 General Social Survey (GSS) seem most apt to answer the question.
Yet What is a Sociological View of “Contemporary Society”?
In close, this goes without saying that “contemporary society” itself is subject to definitions of contemporary society. Those where I grew up thought the contemporary society of U. S. population thought what they thought through intuition, authority, rationality, and empiricism. This was revealed not the case after visiting relatives in California as a teenager during summer. This is anecdote, however, has weight in the question. For if a certain community’s salient social facts are attributed to a schema of contemporary society by any matter of knowledge acquisition such as intuitive, authoritative, rational, empirical, or scientific methodologies, social facts are still social facts.
Influence of methodically functioning, conflicting, and symbolically interacting social facts are still influential, even of other communities (see fake news). One could even claim feedback effects in these very social facts propagating social graphs. Therefore, Furstenberg et al. and the author, while clearly influenced by salient social facts of the value of scientific knowledge acquisition when operationalizing “contemporary U.S. society”, may easily miss greater insights of a population less strain adapted to a scientific method. It is helpful to remind peers that other methods of knowledge acquisition are at play in sociology, therefore what is “contemporary U. S. society” to scientists and sociologists may not be the same to the population at large—therefore sampling is quite tricky, nebulous, and… subject to sociological imagination.
An entire tome could be written on this singular question. For sake of time, a convenience sample might anchor, bias, and perpetuate the habit to innovate an as<s|c>ent to authority, because “we” have Mertonian strains to adapt to (e.g., educations to complete, finances to accumulate, work to accomplish, and families to support). So perhaps the real answer is this: the real basis for judging an adult is in the social facts of Ferstenberg’s (2004) GSS answers as interchangeable indicators for Merton’s (1938) cultural and institutional patterns (p. 676). A single rater coding would result in coding responses for Merton’s categories of cultural goals (i.e., ends) and institutional means (p. 676). The cultural goals (i.e., democratic) are complete, independence, full-time, and able to support. The institutionalized means (i.e., systematic/economic) are education, financial, work, and family. Between these, one can see a clearer picture of a bases of adulthood, generalized as successful acculturation to its dominant measures of strain adaptations. This approach can be easily extended to various cultures. For U.S. society that would be conformist innovation, where the latter innovation strives for independence and ability to support amidst rapidly diminishing supports conditioning said conformity. The crisis saddle between conformity and innovation is for all intents and purposes, a U.S. adult. Giddy up! Further research is not only recommended, but seemingly necessary.
Furstenberg, F. F., Kennedy, S., McLoyd, V. C., Rumbaut, R. G., & Settersten, R. A. (2004). Growing up is harder to do. Contexts, 3(3), 33-41.
Merton, R. K. (1938). Social structure an anomie. American Sociological Review, 3(5), 672-682. https://doi.org/10.2307/2084686
Minor edits made on August 24, 2002; fixed typo in opening paragraph.