Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010
Immigration, a transformative force, has produced striking demographic changes in the American population over the past few decades, especially among its young adults. As recently as 1970, only 4 percent of the approximately 48 million young adults (aged eighteen to thirty-four) in the United States were foreign born. That proportion was the lowest since the U.S. Census Bureau began keeping records on nativity in 1850. But by 2008, when the number of young adults had grown to more than 68 million, almost 30 percent of them were either foreign born or of foreign parentage. These new first and second generations of immigrant origin are steadily growing and changing the ethnic composition and stratification of the nation's young adult population. What is more, their transitions to adult roles—leaving the parental home, finishing school, entering into full-time work, getting married, having children—not only differ significantly by generation and ethnicity, but often stand in marked contrast to patterns observed among their native counterparts who are conventionally assumed to set societal standards.
In this article we sketch a comparative portrait of young adults in the United States in the first years of the twenty-first century, focusing on new patterns of ethnic diversification and of widening socioeconomic and legal inequalities in early adulthood. We analyze data from the latest Current Population Survey and review recent research on young adults of immigrant origin. We focus particularly on generational differences between the foreign-born first and "one and a half" generations and the U.S.-born second generation (of foreign parentage), who are mainly of Latin American and Asian origins, compared with native-parentage young adults, who are overwhelmingly non-Hispanic blacks and whites. We consider structural barriers faced by sizable segments of immigrant youth, especially the undocumented and the less-educated poor, in their transitions to adulthood and discuss possible policy options.