Keating: First Comes School . . .

October 6, 2020

by Maryann O. Keating, Ph.D.

Life expectancy increased by almost 10 years in the U.S. between 1960 and 2015. However, these bonus years are not all spent living the good life in retirement! Rather, some of these years are spent prior to when young adults enter the labor force, get married, and have children. The median age of first marriage in 2018 for males is almost 30 and 28 for women, but somewhat lower in Indiana. This is dramatically up from 22.8 and 20.3 respectively in 1960. The average age at which U.S. women become mothers is 26.4 up from 21 in 1972. 

 What’s the hurry? Why should the elderly should reap all the fun of increased life expectancy? Well, it does become somewhat of a national issue when early retirement plus delayed assumption of adult responsibilities decreases the relative number of those contributing income and paying taxes to those who are not. More to the point, there is a limit to the extent to which society as a whole can assume responsibilities traditionally held by mature individuals and stable families. 

Internationally, the total dependency ratio for a country is calculated as the ratio of combined youth population (ages 0-14) and elderly population (ages 65+) per 100 people of working age (ages 15-64). A high total dependency ratio indicates that the working-age population and the overall economy face a greater burden to support and provide social services for youth and elderly persons. The U.S. is fortunate to have relatively good ratio of 53.9 dependents to 100 of those considered to be of working age, even if labor force participation has declined. 

There is much to be said for deferring marriage and childrearing. The skills needed to follow through on personal commitments and earning sufficient income to maintain a separate household do not just happen. Americans are somewhat reluctant to discuss salaries and household finances in social situations. It is worthwhile, therefore, to consider how young adults and society in general perceive the time leading up to maturity. 

At what age does the state consider a youth to have attained maturity? Definitely, youths receive a mixed message. They are free to join the military and vote in national elections at 18, but may not consume alcohol in public until 21. In Indiana, collaborative care extends foster care until a youth turns 21. At 21, those formerly in foster care can continue to participate in voluntary older youth services, such as rental assistance, until they are 26. Youths living on their own rue the fact that they must pay for health insurance, unlike peers who remain on parents’ policies until they are 26. In addition, playing the odds on eventual student loan forgiveness contributes to postponing commitments. 

Admittedly, many young adults, including those previously in foster care, do not merely wait around to age out of government or family care; they are actively engaged in building lives for themselves. Marriage, parenting, and conscious career development are not for everyone, but steps along any of these paths comes with adult responsibilities. How does society convey the importance of initiating such decisions? 

In the past, most children in the U.S. attended formal classes in their respective faiths. On attaining the age of reason at seven, they learned that lying, stealing, and disobedience to parents were unacceptable. Today, in some traditions, adolescence is publicly acknowledged along with expectations for making personal decisions. Regardless of religious practice, most would agree that society benefits from such rites of initiation into maturity. 

At home in Fishers, Indiana, around high school graduation, garage doors open wide, grills are smoking, and signs on the front lawn announce the name, school, and year of the family’s graduate. In the U.S., for both parents and graduates, the end of high school marks the end of one stage in life and a new beginning. This is not necessarily the case everywhere, although every country is uniquely challenged in dealing with late adolescents. 

In Japan, a formal graduation and teacher appreciation ceremony follows the end of lower- secondary education, even though most students continue on to upper-secondary. In the United Kingdom, after completing a two-year General Certification of Secondary Education (GCSE) students do not so much “graduate” but “leave” or continue on prepare for three or four challenging A-Level exams required for entrance into higher education. As countries attain a certain level of affluence, young people, who have completed compulsory education around age 16, become entitled to two or three years of upper-secondary education. 

Norway is just one of many countries making a distinction between lower- and upper-secondary (H. Farstad, in International Encyclopedia of Education (Third Edition), 2010). Entrants to upper-secondary can choose between three university prep programs and nine alternate programs. The nine alternate programs include building and construction, design and crafts, electricity and electronics, health and social care, media and communication, utilization of natural resources, restaurant and food processing, service and transport, plus technical and industrial production. 

In general, Norwegian upper-secondary vocational training includes 2 years of school-based education followed by 2 years of formalized apprenticeship training. Employers’ organizations, unions, individual companies, and public institutions collaborate with schools in administrating apprenticeships within a formal framework. 

Two aspects of the Norwegian system are particularly interesting. There is a follow-up service for dropouts and young persons of upper-secondary age who are not participating in any of these programs. An attempt is made to assist these youths in finding appropriate education and work experiences or to establish a tailor-made combination. An additional feature of Norway’s upper-secondary is that those who successfully complete vocational training are eligible for a bridging course to meet entrance requirements for high education. 

 The Norwegian approach addresses two valid objections to tracking youngsters at an early age into vocational versus university-prep lie at the core of American thought. First, it is strongly held that late bloomers should receive the educational background necessary for bridging back onto a path leading to the highest levels of academic achievement. Second, vocational training is often perceived as a second-rate education for low-income students. U.S. government and school policies are unlikely to change attitudes. Therefore, any impetus for choosing a specific career path in the final years of high school in the United States must come from parents and students, and every parent and child is unique. Nonetheless, it is informative to see how individual states are nudging adolescents onto specific career paths. 

In Idaho, when students reach seventh grade the state offers them $4,125 to customize their high-school education. The “Advanced Opportunities” program gives students purchasing power to shape their careers, but not without a great deal of bureaucratic paperwork. In response to the criticism that this costly program primarily benefitted college-bound students, the Legislature expanded the program to provide funding for apprenticeships and workforce development courses. The overall goal is that high school students opt into a college track or train to acquire a specialized market skill (Max Eden, “An Educational Innovation That Beats Learning Pods,” Wall Street Journal, Sept. 5-6, 2020, A11). 

It is not always pleasant to move from facilitating potential to requiring commitment; a supportive social consensus is necessary. What is 

best for young adults is to limit any nurturing that fosters dependency, undermines a youth’s hidden strengths, and implies that the nurturer is indispensable. 

It is painful for a 12-year-old Hoosier boy to accept that it is unlikely that he will play football at Notre Dame followed by a lucrative Colts contract. However, as boys and girls mature, they discard youthful fantasies and open themselves to freely selecting the best career and family commitments suitable to their unique inclinations and talents. By pointing out the way and nudging them along the path, we all become the eventual recipients of their enormous potential. 

Maryann O. Keating, Ph.D., a resident of South Bend and an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is co-author of “Microeconomics for Public Managers,” Wiley/Blackwell.


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