Rethinking how we support transitions to adulthood
Reprinted from the Young People: Transitions issue of Visions Journal, 2015, 11 (2), pp. 5-6
Transitions are periods of change. The change can be positive, negative or both. How a person makes a transition is often dependent upon the degree of support that is available to them. This holds true whether it’s an adult making a move between jobs or an adolescent moving from being a teenager to a young adult. Transitions are often stressful because they involve letting go of the comfort of the present and stepping into the unknown.
How the world has changed
Many adults over 45 remember the transition out of adolescence as being a straightforward process. Jobs were plentiful and tuition was inexpensive, so there were a variety of transition options open to young people. A person graduated from high school, got a job, went off to college or university and/or married. You moved out of the family home and were on the path to adulthood. There were periods of angst, but also anticipation and excitement. The vast majority of young people were seen to have achieved independent adulthood by their early twenties.
This is no longer the case for many young people. If there has been a consistent message from research in this area over the last 20 years, it’s that the transition to young adulthood and adulthood has become longer, more complex and much harder to define. The simple milestones of moving out and becoming an adult in the process no longer apply for many people.
It’s a different world today. There has been a significant decrease in the number of highly paid unskilled and semi-skilled jobs. Many traditionally high-paying jobs in manufacturing and resources have disappeared. Since there are fewer options available in these areas, many more youth in Canada now expect to go to college or university after graduating from high school. And the number of well-paying part-time and summer jobs has decreased while tuition and living expenses have increased. This means people are taking longer to graduate and are often deeply in debt when they do.
The age of financial independence has increased by at least the number of years it takes to get a diploma or a degree. The previous tendency for youth to leave home, marry and become parents is happening significantly later than it did a couple of generations ago. The independence that used to be enjoyed by young people is now typically delayed by about a decade as they put off leaving the family home, or leave and return in numbers that were not seen in the past.
This transition from a being a teenager to becoming an independent adult has become so lengthy and complex that it may be a whole new developmental stage. Unfortunately, Canadian social policy has not yet caught up to these changes—they are firmly rooted in a traditional and increasingly outdated understanding of the transition.
Adulthood continues to be defined in much of our policy and legislation as beginning at 18- or 19-years-old. Under current social policy, for example, young people are typically expected to meet the costs of going to college or university through some combination of employment income, government financial support and personal and family resources. In addition, social policy is based on the assumption that young people will have access to family support to make up any shortfalls they may experience while at school. However, many parents today have less ability to financially help their children because of their own job insecurity and high debt loads.
Current policy is also based upon the assumption that secure, well-paid employment will be available once a person finishes post-secondary education. The reality is that this is no longer the case, as the job market is less secure for even the most well-trained workers, and what is available may not pay well.
The transition to adulthood has become increasingly expensive, yet the supports that are available to many young people are based upon the experiences of previous generations rather than the needs of the current one.
And for young people with fewer supports?
It’s tough enough for healthy young people who have family support to successfully make the transition to adulthood. But it’s so much harder for those who’ve faced struggles throughout their childhood and adolescence or who don’t have family. This is especially true because our health and education systems remain siloed and, without key supportive adults, it is often difficult, if not impossible, for youth to navigate the “transitions” from one system to another. For some youth, turning 19 can be like falling off a cliff—too old for youth services but emotionally and otherwise too young for adult services.
Services provided by the health, mental health and educational systems are often so in demand that they cannot help those who need the most support in a timely manner. This can have tragic consequences. Many reports from my office of the provincial Representative for Children and Youth clearly show what happens to young people who don’t get the support they need.*
We need to rethink what it means to become an adult in the current times rather than holding on to a romanticized view of transition that is less and less a reality for youth today. We need to provide every child with the foundation skills they need to successfully move into adulthood. This means developing well-thought-out policies and programs that meet the needs of all children and youth—as well as the key adults in their lives. This is how we help young people become productive, contributing citizens.
For a complete listing of the reports issued by the BC Representative for Children and Youth, please visit www.rcybc.ca/reports-and-publications.
About the author
Mary Ellen is BC’s first Representative for Children and Youth. Her office supports young people and their families in dealing with the provincial child and youth welfare system and provides oversight to this system. Mary Ellen is a judge on leave from the Saskatchewan Provincial Court. She holds a doctorate of law from Harvard Law School and a master’s degree in international law from Cambridge University, and is a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation. She and her husband and four children live in Victoria, BC