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Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010

Immigration and Adult Transitions
Ruben G. Rumbaut Golnaz Komaie

Ethnic Differences in Adult Transitions

Generational status, as determined by age at migration and by the nativity of self and parents, clearly makes a major difference in the modes of adult transitions. What about ethnicity? In previous analyses of young adults in the United States we found that Hispanics collectively (two-thirds of whom are of Mexican origin) were the most likely to have moved out of the home of their parents, to be married, have children, and be working full-time, while Asian-origin young adults as a whole were the most likely to be attending school and least likely to have children.12 But as noted, such pan-ethnic categories often conceal more than they reveal.

Table 1 takes a closer look at ethnic differences and provides data on adult transitions for the ten largest ethnic groups of foreign parentage in the United States, broken down by generational status (1.0, 1.5, and second), compared with native-parentage white and black young adults. Because the greatest changes in the school-to-work transition and in the exit from the parental household occur from age eighteen to twenty-four, the left panel of table 1 focuses on that earlier phase for those transitions; then, with respect to the entry into marriage and parenthood, the right panel of the table compares women only in two age groups, eighteen to twenty-four and twenty-five to thirty-four.

Between age eighteen and age twenty-four, native-parentage whites and blacks exhibit relatively minor differences in the first three of these status transitions: whites were only slightly more likely than blacks to be living with their parents (53 to 49 percent), 7 points more likely to be attending school full time (42 to 35 percent), and 6 points more likely to be working full time (40 to 34 percent). With respect to marriage and children, however, differences are very sharp: between age eighteen and twenty-four, white women were two times more likely to have married (19 to 9 percent), while black women were two times more likely to have had children (30 to 16 percent). By age twenty-five to thirty-four, white women remained far more likely to have ever married (71 to 40 percent), while the childbearing gap had narrowed significantly (57 to 66 percent).

Intergroup and intergenerational differences in adult transitions among the ten foreign-parentage Hispanic and Asian ethnic groups are much more pronounced. For example, among 1.0-generation immigrants eighteen to twenty-four years old, only 5 percent of Mexicans, Guatemalans, and Salvadorans were attending school full time (while almost 60 percent were working full-time—characteristic of low-wage labor migrants). By comparison, for the same 1.0 cohort of eighteen to twenty-four-year-olds, full-time school attendance ranged from less than 25 percent for Cubans, Dominicans, and Puerto Ricans, to less than 50 percent for Filipinos, Indians, and Vietnamese, to more than 60 percent for Koreans and Chinese.

By the 1.5 and especially the second generation, within the span of one generation, full-time school attendance increases tremendously for most of these groups, indicative of rapid educational mobility. Among eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds, for example, the share of Mexicans going to school full time increased to 23 percent in the 1.5 generation and 33 percent in the second generation; the respective rates for Salvadorans and Guatemalans were 24 percent and 43 percent; for Cubans, 32 percent and 47 percent; for Dominicans, 43 percent and 48 percent; and for all of the Asian groups, well above 50 percent in both the 1.5 and second generations, including two-thirds of the Chinese and nearly three-fourths of the Indians. In turn, the proportion of these groups who lived with their parents roughly corresponded to the proportions that attended school full time, and was inversely related to the proportion that worked full time.

Pursuing higher education leads many young adults to postpone marriage and children. Thus, it is not surprising to see that the groups most likely still to be in school full time (for example, second-generation Filipinos, Indians, Chinese, Koreans, and Vietnamese) are also the least likely to be married and to have children. But as was the case between native-parentage whites and blacks, the interethnic and intergenerational group differences are striking in these respects. As table 1 shows, the Mexicans and Puerto Ricans were by far the most likely to have had children in early adulthood (eighteen to twenty-four years old), but Mexican women were much more likely to be married than the Puerto Ricans (for whom the likelihood of nonmarital childbearing increases notably from the 1.0 to the 1.5 and second generations). The likelihood of both marriage and early parenthood among Mexican young women decreases notably from the 1.0 to the 1.5 and second generations. Salvadoran and Guatemalan young women also exhibit high rates of marriage and early childbearing in the first generation, but sharp decreases in the second generation. In contrast, Dominican, Cuban, and Filipino women exhibit moderate and declining levels of childbearing from the first to the second generations, with the Cubans more likely to be married.

The Vietnamese, Korean, Indian, and Chinese women, in turn, exhibit very low levels of early childbearing (all in single digits), and very sharp declines from the first to the second generation in the proportion who get married. By ages twenty-five to thirty-four, only a fourth of second-generation Korean, Indian, and Chinese women and less than a third of the Vietnamese have had children, compared with more than half of the Cubans, Dominicans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans, and two-thirds of the Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. These differences in adult transitions, in turn, are rooted in and reflect wide differences in socioeconomic inequality and mobility among these groups. We now turn to those considerations.