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Vulnerability in the Transition to Adulthood

Vulnerability in the Transition to Adulthood

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Vulnerability in the transition to adulthood: De
ning risk based on youth pro
Stephanie Cosner Berzin
Boston College, United States
a b s t r a c ta r t i c l e i n f o
 Article history:
Received 22 April 2009Received in revised form 2 November 2009Accepted 3 November 2009Available online 11 November 2009
YouthEmerging adulthoodVulnerabilityRisk and resilienceSystem involvement
In spite of an extended transition to adulthood for many segments of the population, many youth stillstruggle considerably with transition outcomes. With data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth(
=8984), this study uses latent class analysis to identify patterns of youth development in emergingadulthood based on education level and social outcomes. These classes are used to identify risk andprotective factors for class membership. Four pro
les of youth were identi
ed with two groups showingpositive outcomes and two groups struggling considerably. Bivariate and cumulative logit analysis showsthat demographic characteristics, childhood home environment, and psychosocial resources predict classmembership. Involvement in youth-serving government systems is associated with poorer outcomes andremains salient when considered with other risk factors. The emergence of this new developmental stagerequires a reexamination of vulnerability and how we understand risk and resiliency during this period.© 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
1. Introduction
Recent social, economic, and demographic changes have affordedmanyyouthalengthenedtransitiontoadulthood(seee.g.,Arnett,2000;Mortimer&Larson,2002;Settersten,Furstenberg,&Rumbaut,2005).Inspite of this extended developmental period for some segments of thepopulation, other youthstruggle withpoor transitionoutcomes relatedto educational and social problems. Scholarship examining theexperiences of struggling youth in this period has often concentratedon subsets of youth based primarily on social service systeminvolvement (Osgood, Foster, Flanagan, & Ruth, 2005). Youth from thechild welfare,juvenile justice, and specialeducationsystemshave beeninvestigated separately to understand their experience during thistransition. Although this classi
cation is useful to explore speci
cexperiences, a broader understanding of vulnerability during this timeperiod is warranted to create adequate policy and programs. To targetservices appropriately requires understanding the salience of systeminvolvement for exacerbating other risk factors and which youth whoare not involved in social service systems during childhood faceconsiderable risk as they transition to adulthood. The present studyexplores youth vulnerability in emerging adulthood by examiningyouth pro
les based on outcomes. The study challenges us to reachbeyond system classi
cations towards broader de
nitions of risk thatmore adequately portray youth experience.
1.1. Theoretical considerations of the transition to adulthood
Aconsiderationofvulnerabilityduringthetransitiontoadulthoodiswarrantedduetorecentscholarshipsuggestingthatthisdevelopmentalperiod looks markedly different than in the past (Arnett, 2000;Settersten et al., 2005; Shanahan, 2000).Arnett (2000, 2001, 2004)de
emerging adulthood
as the period following adolescence thatoccurs prior to adulthood. During emerging adulthood, youth workthroughthetransitiontoadulthoodthroughidentityexploration,insta-bility, self-focus, feelings of neither being an adolescent nor adult, andoptimism(Arnett,2004).Cote(2006)notestheextensionoftheschool- to-work transition and the diminished structures in place to regulatethistransitionascontributorstothistrend.Scholarsarticulatingthelifecourseperspective,whichde
nesthetransitiontoadulthoodintermsof role transitions from dependent to more independent roles, also notethe extension in the time to make these transitions (Elder, 1980;Shanahan, 2000). As this developmental period provides opportunityfor exploration, skill attainment, and support for some segments of thepopulation, those without this opportunity may become even morevulnerable.
1.2. System-involved youth
The connections between early life experiences and vulnerabilityare quite salient (Mechanic & Tanner, 2007), and evidence hasmountedthatyouthinservicesystemsfaceparticularstruggles.Manyyouth from these systems have pre-existing risk factors related topoverty, race, family background, education, physical and mentalhealth issues, and access to resources. There is clear evidence thatyouth in the child welfare system (e.g.,Berzin, 2008; Courtney &Dworsky, 2006; Goerge et al., 2002), youth who have been in special
Children and Youth Services Review 32 (2010) 487
E-mail address:
see front matter © 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2009.11.001
Contents lists available atScienceDirect
Children and Youth Services Review
 journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/childyouth
education, (Wagner, Newman, Cameto, Garza, & Levine, 2005), andyouth in the juvenile justice system (Bullis & Yovanoff, 2002; Fagan &Freeman, 1999) face challenges in the transition to adulthood.Negative outcomes related to educational, employment, welfare,early parenting, and criminal activity impact large percentages of youth who have been involved in these systems.Although scholarship has examined youth in these systemsseparately, circumstances that connect youth across systems may bemore signi
cant for de
ning vulnerability than the particular systeminwhicha youthis involved.Duringemergingadulthood,theseyouthmay have similar experiences as they are released from child-servingsystems, creating an absence or change in their support network, orinvolving them in adult systems that are less forgiving and lessrehabilitative. Further, as some youth involved in these systems dosucceed, it is important to understand how system involvementexacerbates risk for some subsets of this population.
1.3. Vulnerability in emerging adulthood
Current scholarship provides little information on how risk factorsintersect with the tasks of emerging adulthood for vulnerable youth.Varying de
nitions of vulnerability de
ne risk as related to demo-graphic characteristics, interpersonal relationships, access to resources,individual capacity, and the availability of support, with the consider-ation of race and poverty as central factors (Mechanic & Tanner, 2007;BealeSpenceretal.,2006;Aday,2001).Astheschool-to-worktransitionhas lengthened, those with higher educational attainment face evengreatergainsoverthosenotinapositiontogainthesecredentials(Cote,2006).Theeffectofpre-existingriskfactorsmaybeexacerbatedduringthis period of transition, leaving those with the fewest resources evenfurther behind. For youth involved in systems during their childhood,layered dimensions of risk may intensify their dif 
culties duringemerging adulthood. Resilience de
nes a youth's ability, in spite of adversity and threats to functioning, to develop successfully (Luthar &Zigler, 1991; Masten, 1994). Childhood resources, which includeintellectual functioning, parenting quality, and socioeconomic status,predict adaptive outcomes in resilient individuals (Masten et al., 2004,Mastenetal.,1999).Speci
ctoemergingadulthood,anadditionalsetof characteristics,mainlyautonomy,futuremotivation,adultsupport,andcoping skills, provides additive resources to support a successfultransition to adulthood regardless of risk in childhood (Masten et al.,2004).Cote (2006)argues that given the lack of institutional resources to guide youth through the transition to adulthood, personal resourcesbecome even more important. It is unclearwhether theseresources forresilience protect system-involved youth in the same way as otheryouthand help themovercomecontinued adversityin thetransition toadulthood. Subsets of youth may remain particularly vulnerable, whileothers may adapt successfully.Asweattempttomakesenseofvulnerabilityinemergingadulthood,it is important to examine the characteristics that help us better de
newhat puts youth at risk for negative outcomes during this period.Further we need an understanding of how multiple dimensions of riskrelatedtopre-existingfactorsandsysteminvolvementworktogethertocreatevulnerability.Thepresentstudyattemptstoexaminetheseissuesbystartingnot withyouthgrouped bysystem,butinsteadbyexploringyouthbasedonoutcomepro
le.Usingaperson-orientedapproach,thestudy assumes individual development must be understood byexamining the person in a holistic way, rather than in a variable-orientedapproach(vonEye&Bogat,2006).Latentclassanalysisisusedto explore youth based on observed patterns in the data rather thanrelyingonpredeterminedclassi
lesofyouthexistinthistransition,whatcharacteristicsareassociatedwithnegative trajectories and whether in fact youth from particular servicesystems are at heightened risk. This research hopes to expand ourthinking beyond traditional classi
cations based on service system andgalvanize new approaches toward a uni
ed agenda for responding tothe dif 
culties vulnerable youth face during this transition.
2. Methods
Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997(NLSY97), this study examined patterns of development in emergingadulthood. The NLSY97 is a survey designed by the Bureau of Labor totrack the school-to-work experiences and factors that in
uence thistransitionamonga nationallyrepresentative sample of youth(BureauofLaborStatistics,2003).TheNLSY97samplewasdrawnfromacross-sectional sample of U.S. residents and a supplemental sample of theblack and Hispanic population born from 1980 through 1984(
=8984). The survey has been conducted on an annual basisstarting in 1997 with a response rate between 82% and 93% for allsurvey rounds. The present study utilizes rounds 1
9 of the data,collected from 1997 to 2005.
 2.1. Sample
The NLSY97 used strati
ed multistage sampling to select eligiblehousing units totaling 95,512 and screen for individuals in the homebetweentheagesof12and16leadingtothestudysample(
=8984)(Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2003). The sample included the cross-sectional sample (
=6748) and supplemental sample (
=2236).Interviews were conducted with a corresponding parent (
=7942)when possible. The parent was chosen using the following hierarchy:1) biological mother; 2) biological father; 3) adoptive mother;4) adoptive father; 5) stepmother; 6) stepfather; 7) guardian,relative; 8) foster parent; 9) non-relative youth lived with for 2 ormore years; 10) mother-
gure, relative; 11) father-
gure, relative;12) mother-
gure, non-relative youth lived with for 2 or more years;and 13) father-
gure non-relative youth lived with for 2 or moreyears. Parent interviews were conducted at round 1, while childinterviews were conducted annually. At round 9, the sample rangedfrom ages 20 to 26. The present study utilized data from the all youthin the sample (
=8894) and parent interviews where noted.
 2.2. Measures 2.2.1. Latent class analysis measures
To understand pro
les of youth outcomes in the transition toadulthood,thelatentclassanalysis(LCA)utilizedvariablesthatindicatecompetence duringthis time period.Indicators were chosen that relateto speci
c markers of the transition to adulthood and dif 
culty withmeeting developmental norms. Speci
c markers of this period includeleaving school, full-time participation in the labor market, setting up ahomethatisindependentofthehomeoforigin,gettingmarriedand
rsttime parenthood (Elder, 1980; Shanahan, 2000). As successful devel-opment during this time period may also be de
ned as competence inage-salient tasks in the academic, work, conduct, and social arenas(Masten et al., 2004; Roisman, Masten, Coatsworth, & Tellegen, 2004),additionalindicatorswerechosenthatdemonstrateproblemsrelatedtocompetence in these. To capture these two views of developmentalcompetence,indicatorswerechosenforthelatentclassanalysisrelatedto academic achievement, employment, economic self-suf 
ciency,homelessness, teen parenting, drug use, involvement with the criminal justice system, and lack of social support.Academic achievement was measured using two dichotomousvariables to indicate whether a youth had dropped out of high schooland whether a youth ever enrolled in college. Three variables wereincluded relatedtoemploymentandeconomicself-suf 
ciency,povertyin emerging adulthood, public assistance use, and adult employment.Povertywasmeasuredaswhethertherespondentlivedatorbelowthepovertylinebasedonhouseholdincomeatanypointinthesurveywhenthe youth was 18 or above. Adult employment was an indicator of 
S.C. Berzin / Children and Youth Services Review 32 (2010) 487 
whether the youth never held a job at age 20 or above. This age waschosen by the survey design through the Bureau of Labor to describeadult employment (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2003). Public assistancewasde
nedasthereceiptofpublicassistancebytheindividualanddoesnot include public assistance received by other members of thehousehold (e.g., parents). Public assistance includes receipt of Aid toFamilies with Dependent Children; Temporary Assistance for NeedyFamilies; food stamps; the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program forWomen, Infants, and Children; public housing; general assistance;Cuban, Haitian, or Native American assistance; and emergencyassistance. Homelessness indicates that a respondent was homeless,did not have a permanent residence, or lived in a shelter at any pointduring the years of the survey when the respondent was ages 18 orabove.Adichotomousvariableindicateswhetheranindividualbecamea parent at age 20 or below. This variable only indicates mothering orfathering a child, and does not imply care for the child. Drug usemeasures whether the respondent reports that he or she has usedcocaine, crack, heroin, or other so-called hard drugs. Attempts weremade to include variables related to alcohol and marijuana use, butthere was limited variance across the sample. Data on two measures of criminalbehaviorarereportedforeachsurveyround.The
rstmeasureis whether the youth reports that between surveys they have beenarrestedforanillegaloffense,otherthanaminortra
cviolation,whenthe respondent was 18 or older. The second item measures, whetherduring the same time period, the youth was sentenced to adult jail orprison after being convicted of a crime. No social support indicateswhether a respondent had no one to turn to for advice related torelationships, education, employment, or
nances at any point duringthe survey when he was 18 or above.
 2.2.2. Risk and resilience variables
After establishing youth pro
les, risk and protective factors forclass assignment were examined. Risk and resilience variables werechosenbasedontheoreticalcontributionsfromMasten's(2004,1999)work, and include measures of home life, socioeconomic status,intellectual functioning, support, future motivation, and personalagency. Other scholars suggest the importance of demographiccharacteristics (Beale Spencer et al., 2006) and early life experiences(Mechanic & Tanner, 2007) for predicting vulnerability, and thusvariables related to demographics and childhood problem behaviorwere included.Genderwasde
nedasblack,white, and other. Attempts were made to further distinguish otherrace into multiple categories, but sample size was too small to allowthistypeofanalysis.Povertylevelwasde
nedbytheparentinterviewwhen available, otherwise by youth response. This variable indicatedwhether the respondent's family reported living at or below thefederal poverty threshold at Round 1 of the survey. Three variableswereused to measurehomeenvironment.All weretakenfromRound1 of the survey and utilized data from the parent and youthinstruments. The family home risk assessment is based on BettyeCaldwell and Robert Bradley's (1984)
Home Observation for Measure-ment of theEnvironment 
andadaptedforuseintheNLSY97(CenterforHuman Resource Research, 1999, 2002). This measure was used toassessthe youth's physicalenvironment, familyinvolvement withtheyouth, con
ict in the household, and the youth
parent relationship(Center for Human Resource Research, 1999). The family routineindex was adapted from
the Family Routines Inventory
created by Jenson, James, Bryce, and Hartnett in 1983 to measure how often afamily engages in activities in a routine fashion (e.g., eat dinnertogether, work on assigned homework, do something fun as a family,and do something religious as a family) (Center for Human ResourceResearch,1999).Dataforthisvariablecomefromyouthreport.Parentsupport was reported from youth response on how supportive theirmotherorfatherareatRound1.Dataarecodedtoindicatethehighestlevelof supportayouthreceives,regardless of parentgender.Supportwas coded as high support, support, and no support. In multivariateanalysis, support was collapsed into dichotomous categories, sup-portive and not supportive.Psychosocial resources, including optimism, personal agency, andfuture outlook were measured using the response on a single variablerelated to each construct at Round 1. Responses from round 1 provideinformation about psychosocial resources during adolescence thatmay be utilized in emerging adulthood. Speci
c indicators includedwhether the respondents endorsed a statement about whether theyare optimistic for the future. Another statement asking the respon-dentaboutthe belief thatthingswill go his waywas used to judge therespondent's personal agency. Future motivation, also known asplanfulness was measured using an indicator of future outlook. Thismeasure examined whether a respondent believes good things willhappen to him. For each measure, responses were dichotomized intohigh and low responses. Childhood social support was measured bywhether a respondent has no one to turn to with personal problems.Intellectual ability was measured in the NLSY97 using the subset of the Peabody Individual Achievement Test (PIAT) (Bureau of LaborStatistics, 2003). This is a widely used brief measure of achievementwithstrongreliabilityandvalidity.Forthepresentstudy,ameasureof low achievement was used. This dichotomous variable indicatedwhether a youth ever scored in the 25th percentile or below on thePIAT-Revised taken during rounds 1
4 of the survey. Educationexperience in childhood was captured using one measure of whethera respondent feels his teachers are good and was dichotomized into ayes or no rating. Data were not available to capture other informationabout youth views of their educational experience.Two continuous measures of problem behavior, the delinquencyindex and substance abuse index were used to gauge behavior inchildhood. The delinquency index was modi
ed from items createdby Del Elliot for the National Youth Survey and consists of 10 itemsrelated to delinquency (Center for Human Resource Research, 1999).The substance abuse index was modi
ed from items used in theNational Survey of Households and Families and uses three variablesto measure substance use (Center for Human Resource Research,1999).
 2.2.3. System-involved youth
Data were alsoexamined to see if system involvement in childhoodwas related to class membership in emerging adulthood. Youth wereclassi
ed based on involvement in the following systems: foster care, juvenile justice, and special education. Respondents were classi
ed ashaving a fostercare history if the youth ever reported thatthey lived infoster care or had a foster parent. These data were collected at round 1regarding four childhood time points (ages 2, 6, and 12) and at eachround of the survey. Youth were classi
ed as having a juvenile justicehistoryif theywereeversentenced toajuvenilecorrectionsinstitution,reform school, community service, or other outcome after beingconvicted of a crime as a juvenile. Youth were categorized with ahistory of special education placement if they ever reported beingplaced in special education. An overall measure of system involvementwasutilizedclassifyingyouthashavingahistoryofinvolvementinzero,one, or more than one of the abovementioned systems. Attempts weremade to isolate youth who were involved in the public mental healthservice system, but no variable of mental health system use wasavailable.For all measures described, attempts were made to
ll in missingdata whenever possible. Measures taken from the
rst round of thesurvey were available for all participants. Measures from later roundsof the survey were asked in multiple years of survey data and youthwho have missed a survey round were able to
ll in information fromthe missed round at the next interview. When missing data could notbe obtained and the measure was taken from a single round, themeasure is coded as a dummy variable to indicate data are missing.
S.C. Berzin / Children and Youth Services Review 32 (2010) 487 

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