Predicting markers of adulthood among adolescent mothers.

Author:Oxford, Monica L.

This prospective longitudinal study examines the antecedents of adolescent mothers' transition into adulthood and their attainment of multiple adult statuses in their early 30s in a nonclinical sample. The distribution, timing, and impact of factors in adolescence (education, employment, marriage, economic status, criminal involvement, and others) are shown relative to their impact on the transition into adulthood and attainment of typical markers of adulthood (employment, economic status, marriage, postsecondary education, and family formation). Descriptive data of demographic variables for adolescent mothers are reported from birth of child at average age 16 through 16 years postpartum at average age 32. Logistic regression results indicate that of all the factors examined in adolescence, on-time graduation from high school or receipt of a GED (by age 19) influenced the attainment of multiple markers of adulthood. Implications for intervention and policy with regard to completion of basic education are discussed.

KEY WORDS: adolescent mothers; educational attainment; high school; transition to adulthood


In a recent edited book dedicated to transitions to adulthood for vulnerable populations, Wald (2005) argued that vulnerable populations of youths preparing to transition to adulthood are poorly equipped for success because they lack the "extensive support" that other youths experience during the transitional years from adolescence to adulthood. During this transitional period from 18 to 30 years of age, young adults simultaneously undergo multiple role shifts and status changes in employment and unemployment, school attendance and school leaving, family and romantic relationships, marriage and divorce, residence and migration, and parenting status (Rindfuss, 1991). Rindfuss referred to this period as "demographically dense," a period in the life course in which more demographic shifts occur than at any other time and a period marked by a scarcity of resources. In the general population, young adulthood is marked by fewer economic resources and less access to power (Rindfuss, 1991); for vulnerable populations there is even greater loss of resources. Some youths "age out" of the systems of support that are available to them, such as youths in foster care, who are less likely to rely on kinship networks as a source of support (Courtney & Heuring, 2005); other youths, such as those who are institutionalized, are prevented from developmentally normative activities that would enable them to gain access to postinstitutional education or employment opportunities during young adulthood (Chung, Little, & Steinberg, 2005).The purpose of this study was to examine adolescent mothers' transition into adulthood and the role of antecedents that promote transition and those that impede it.

Like other vulnerable groups, adolescent mothers as youths (prior to becoming parents) are exposed to a greater number of risk factors that covary with poor adulthood outcomes, including poverty and correlates of poverty. Kalil and Kunz (1999) and others (Hotz, McElroy, & Sanders, 1997) compared risk factors of adolescent mothers to non-childbearing adolescents in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth data and found that a higher proportion of teenage mothers were members of a racial--ethnic minority group (African American or Hispanic), lived with a single mother at age 14, had family income below the poverty threshold, had a mother who had not obtained a high school diploma, had larger families, had fewer educational resources in the home, and lived in an urban area with a high percentage of female-headed households. Thus, adolescent mothers are not randomly distributed in the population; they are more likely to be vulnerable to difficulties in their transition to adulthood because of early exposure to poverty and related risks.

Given that adolescent mothers are, in the aggregate, a vulnerable subpopulation of youths, the identification of factors related to their achievement of demographic markers of adulthood has implications for intervention and support. There are few contemporary longitudinal studies of adolescent mothers by which to examine how adolescent mothers managed the transition into adulthood under these disadvantaged circumstances. Furthermore, there is virtually no research assessing the relative importance of the timing of important milestones in the transition into adulthood among this subpopulation. This article seeks to address these gaps in the current literature by using data from a prospective longitudinal study with a contemporary sample of adolescent mothers, providing a contemporary portrait of the demographic markers of adulthood, and investigating the potential impacts of the timing of demographic milestones in late adolescence on long-term adult outcomes.

Focusing on markers of adulthood, we recognize the lack of consensus on the definition of adulthood, which may be particularly true for adolescent mothers who have early "attainment" of significant events often associated with adulthood, such as parenthood and marriage. Marriage, for example, is confounded with other adult outcomes in unexpected ways; for many adolescent mothers, marriage is fraught with potential problems, including reduced educational attainment (Upchurch & McCarthy, 1990). Furstenberg (1976) noted that after delivery, many young single mothers were more motivated to return to school, whereas marriage within one year of delivery was related to dropping out. Weed, Keogh, and Borkowski (2000) noted that early marriage derails young women's movement toward self-sufficiency (education and employment) and that early marriages are quite unstable. Ten years post first marriage, divorce rates are twice as high for young women under the age of 18 as they are for those over 25 (Barmlett & Mosher, 2001). In addition, Weed et al. (2000) argued that to finish school, adolescent mothers often rely on extended family or public assistance which are typically viewed as measures of dependency and markers antithetical to a "normative" expectation of adulthood. However, for adolescent mothers, family dependency and public assistance may be the only mechanisms available to support their movement toward other markers of adult status. Mouw (2005) argued that full-time employment is a marker of adulthood for young women and their partners, but this definition is problematic for women with dependent children who do not have a partner and are unable to work full time. Thus, in this article we describe the occurrence of typical markers of adulthood without suggesting the desirability of such markers, because some are not simply desirable (for example, marriage) or undesirable (for example, public assistance) when taken in context of the life experience of young mothers.


Building on relevant previous research, we have identified several key domains of study that are relevant to understanding outcomes for young mothers, including family of origin resources, financial insecurity, education completion, family size, family disruptions, and age at first birth. The following sections summarize the relevance of some of the basic antecedents of adulthood in the context of adolescent parenting.

Family of Origin Socioeconomic Status

An important antecedent to adult outcomes for adolescent mothers is family of origins' socioeconomic status. Parental income and education have been demonstrated to be highly predictive of adult outcomes, such as high school graduation (Sum et al., 2003) and adult economic status (Guldi, Page, & Huff Stevens, 2007).

High School Completion

Completing basic education is known as one of the most important factors contributing to success in adulthood in the United States (Ceci & Williams, 1997). Youths who have dropped out of high school are considered extremely vulnerable for poor adult outcomes because low education places them at risk for poor employment prospects (Furstenberg, Kennedy, McCloyd, Rumbaut, & Settersten, 2003). In particular, the association of educational attainment with economic success in adulthood has been well documented (Rumberger & Lamb, 2003). High school dropouts with a GED earn more income than do their counterparts without a GED (Tyler, Murnane, & Willett, 2000). In addition, higher education attainment and adult economic status are positively associated with stable employment in adulthood (Klerman & Karoly, 1994).

Educational completion has been a particular focus of attention in studying the lives and well-being of young mothers. It has been asserted that having a child as a teenager has negative effects on education completion and on long-term economic outcomes. However, Upchurch and McCarthy (1990) found that, after controlling for background characteristics, having a child while enrolled in school did not lead to dropping out of school; the majority of those having a baby while in school graduated. Similarly, Upchurch (1993) found that those young mothers who dropped out of school prior to giving birth were less likely to graduate from high school, and later research showed that this pattern was associated with young mothers' highly disadvantaged backgrounds in their youth.

Dependence on Public Assistance

Another potential antecedent to adult outcomes for adolescent mothers is dependency on public assistance. As noted by Furstenberg et al. (2003), financial independence is one of the main markers of attainment of adult status. Adolescent mothers have been consistently portrayed as dependent on public assistance throughout their young adult years as they raise their children. Hotz et al. (1997), however, concluded that adolescent mothers come from a population with greater use of public assistance and lower educational attainment, and they are more likely to come from lower income families with greater stress and...

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