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Winter 2014 Vol. 14 Number 2

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Coming of Age

Young Adulthood Is Not What It Used to Be

169/George Marks/Ocean/Corbis

For those ages 18 to 26, achieving independence as an adult may seem pretty hard. These feelings are not unfounded, according to a recent report from the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council that calls for more attention to the circumstances and needs of today's young adults.

Economic and social forces -- such as the rebuilding of the economy, widening inequality, increasing population diversity, and evolving changes in technologies -- have altered the landscape for young adults. In previous generations, the path for most young adults was predictable: graduate from high school, enter college or the workforce, leave home, get married, and start a family. Today's pathways are often less predictable and extended due to the increasing cost of college and burden of college debt, a deficiency of well-compensated entry-level jobs, and the high cost of living independently. An estimated 17 percent of young adults ages 16 to 24 are neither attending school nor working. Many of these idle young adults are not just unemployed but have dropped out of the labor force altogether in response to the lower wages and fewer benefits available to those with high school-level education or less.

Moreover, young adults are surprisingly unhealthy. As adolescents age into their 20s, they are less likely to eat breakfast, exercise, and receive regular medical checkups, and more likely to eat fast food, contract sexually transmitted diseases, smoke cigarettes, use marijuana and other drugs, and binge drink. The current generation of young adults is also at the forefront of the obesity epidemic and more vulnerable to obesity-related health consequences in later years. Mental health among young adults is also a cause for concern; along with substance use, mental health disorders are the greatest source of disability among young adults in the U.S.

The committee that wrote the report recommended that young adults should be viewed as a separate subpopulation in policy and research, because they are in a critical period of development when successes or failures could strongly affect the trajectories of their lives. Providing more educational, economic, social, and health supports -- especially for those at risk of experiencing the greatest struggles -- could promote equal opportunities, reduce disparities, and enable them to embrace adult roles. Public and private sectors should improve policies and programs that address these needs, including raising completion rates for those in high school and postsecondary institutions and ensuring that attained skills and credentials are ones rewarded in the labor market.

-- Jennifer Walsh

Investing in the Health and Well-Being of Young Adults. Committee on Improving the Health, Safety, and Well-Being of Young Adults, Board on Children, Youth, and Families, Institute of Medicine and National Research Council (2014, approx. 440 pp.; ISBN 978-0-309-30995-0; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $77.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The study was chaired by Richard J. Bonnie, Harrison Foundation Professor of Medicine and Law and director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Public Policy at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Health Resources and Services Administration and Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Annie E. Casey Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Defense.

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