Adolescence as a culture of irresponsibility
Situated at the border between childhood and adolescence, “youth culture”
was defined by Parsons in terms of two complementary traits : sharp though
ambiguous opposition to adult culture, and a profound separation of male and
female roles. “Youth culture”, which is in fact adolescent culture, is defined
as one of irresponsibility. The dominant trait, according to Parsons, consists
in “having a good time”, in contrast to the imperative of responsibility characteristic of adult male roles.
See also Coleman (1962) and Keniston
However–and here the gender-related features
of youth combine with age characteristics– the ways of experiencing and enacting this culture are very different for boys and girls. Boys value athletic
qualities and feats, whereas the prestige scale for girls is determined by the
“glamor girl” stereotype. These different qualities, both of which manifest the
carefree attitude characteristic of adolescence, are in fact profoundly complementary in that they constitute sexual attractiveness, which is what fuels and
orients all behavior in this life period. The developmental pattern in sexual
mores that Parsons observed in American young people was confirmed by
certain quantitative studies, namely the famous Kinsey study. And Lagrange
(1998) points out that it was among university-educated young Americans
born between 1910 and 1930 that it became highly popular to kiss on the
mouth before having sexual intercourse, reserved for after marriage. A boy
was expected to kiss the girls he went out with, not to have sexual intercourse
This behavior corresponded to the highly codified sexual practice that organized contacts between girls and boys in high school : dating. In vogue from
the late 1940s among students in their last years of secondary school, dating
was a system in which young people met and went out together, comparable
to certain courting rituals in old rural France. Strictly monitored by the young
people themselves and perfectly consistent with American social values, it enabled young people of the opposite sex to see each other regularly and flirt.
These self-monitored encounters provided matter for collective productions
such as high school newspaper columns and worked to maintain gender
stereo types (Modell, 1989). In the United States, then, adolescence was
constructed more quickly than elsewhere due to the fact that education was
prolonged earlier within a schooling context that tended to create norms and
institutions particular to young people.
Modell remarks that the production of
American adolescence as described by Parsons was both different from
childhood, in that adolescents resisted parental pressures and developed a culture “on the borderline of parental approval […] in such matters as sexual behavior, drinking, and various forms of frivolous and irresponsible behavior”
unacceptable to them, and totally distinct from adult culture in that the symbols of prestige among successful adults were very different from those
valued in the youth culture : “From being the athletic hero or a lion of college
dances, the young man becomes a prosaic businessman or lawyer.”
Another defining characteristic of American adolescent culture was the
profound separation between male and female roles. American girls were destined at the time to become wives and mothers; few were planning to work.
From this perspective, the dichotomy and complementarity of adolescent gender roles were functionally adapted to the positions that young adults of the
two sexes would we called upon to occupy in American society. For Parsons,
“youth culture” as a whole was a functional process facilitating the transition
from the security of childhood within the family of origin to full adult status
in marriage and working life. It was precisely because this transition period
was characterized by tension that it carried elements of “unrealistic romanticism”.
Adolescence defined as an intermediate moment clearly distinguished by
cultural features from both childhood and adulthood did not appear until later
in France. High school [lycée] enrolment did not begin to increase dramatically until the end of the 1950s : the proportion of students in the equivalent of
ninth to twelfth grades out of total population of 15- to 17-year-olds went
from 43% for school year 1958-59 to 61% for 1970-71. The practice of flirting, one of the clearest manifestations of the new adolescent age in that it dissociates contact with the opposite sex from matrimonial perspectives, only developed in France over the 1960s, exploding in the 1970s (Lagrange, 1998).
Adolescence was also characterized in
France by idol...
Parsons’ counterpart in France was Edgar Morin, who, 27 years after “Age
and Sex in the Social Structure of the United States”, proposed a distinct sociological analysis of French adolescent culture (Morin, 1969). He showed
how an entirely new type of age-group solidarity was being created; how, in
rural areas, for example, a different tie was supplanting that which had existed
between young people of a given village. The earlier tie had mainly worked
by establishing an opposition between the young people of neighboring villages while integrating each group into the local adult social system. Now a
new overarching solidarity among young people was taking the place of
intra-village solidarity and closing young people off from the adult world.
Adolescence advened later in France than in the United States and probably had slightly different features. In France, for example, hypertrophied stereotypical gender models had less sway. French adolescence did exhibit one
of Parsons’ fundamental characteristics, however : separation from the two
ages it came between, childhood before, adulthood after. This feature made it
Post-adolescence, a form of prolonged adolescence
In a compelling article written in 2000, Hugh Cunningham identifies four
phases in relations between young Britons and their parents over the last
250 years and analyzes corresponding trends in home-leaving age.
In the first phase, stretching from the eighteenth to the early nineteenth
century, young people left parents’ home very early–the normal age was 14–
to take up service in another family. Girls become servants and boys farm
hands. They did this simply because there was no work for people who stayed
with their parents.
The second phase, which began with industrialization, was characterized
by much longer cohabitation; children were major contributors to the family
economy. What is striking in accounts cited by historians to describe intergenerational relations at this time is that children’s world was fully continuous with adults’. Children “felt proud to be able to contribute in such a way to
the family well-being. […] It seems not unreasonable to conclude that the
level of sexual activity among young people was exceptionally low, and the
sense of obligation to their parents exceptionally high”. This phase reached its
apogee in the early twentieth century.
The third phase began around the time of the Second World War and ended in
the mid-sixties. This transition period was compressed due to two developments :
prolonged schooling and lower marrying age. Most important, the balance of
intergenerational relations within the family began to be reversed. The feeling
that children had a duty to their parents weakened as family discipline loosened
and children’s and adolescents’ wishes were increasingly taken into account.
The last phase began in the early eighties. In this period the trend of a compressed transition to adulthood and a quick move from one phase to the next
has in turn been reversed. Cunningham maintains that this is due to young people prolonging their education in response to less promising employment prospects. This does not prevent them from leaving home, but their departure takes
on a completely different meaning from what it had in the early twentieth century : leaving the parental home no longer generally means that young persons
are settling into adult roles. We must therefore distinguish between living away
from home and leaving home proper–a crucial difference to be elucidated further on. In this interpretation of transitions to adulthood over the recent centuries, the fundamental factor is change in power relations within the family.
Cunningham’s analysis of developments in intergenerational relations
sheds new light on the question of adolescence. The emergence of this life period also corresponded to a reversal in feelings of obligation within families.
The sense of carefree irresponsibility described by Parsons stands in contrast
to the feelings of filial duty which, according to Cunningham, accounted for
the behavior of British children and adolescents in the first half of the twentieth century.
“Post-adolescence” can be conceived as an exacerbated reversal in the respective value of each generation and the sense of obligation between them.
“The idea spread that adolescence was not necessarily a brief and painful transition period between two other relatively long periods. New terms were
forged to designate this attitude and this new life period : prolonged adolescence, post-adolescence.” (Béjin, 1983).
The idea also quickly spread that despite the types of assistance children
received from their parents–increasingly diverse and ever-more generous– all
young people’s situations were not really comparable or equal. The increasing
difficulty of acceding to employment starting in the late 1960s gave credence
to the idea that “supernumerary young people were being cast aside” (Le
Bras, 1983). By “compensating young people” for such disadvantages while
“refusing them any power”, the older generation maintained the younger in a
state of prolonged dependence that served their own adult interests.
In “post-adolescence” the features of adolescence were exacerbated; the
period of irresponsibility was pushed beyond the limit of physiological adolescence.
Physiological adolescence, as indicated
by age of...
Depending on the researcher, the causes of this development
were to be sought either in young people themselves or the behavior of the
generation preceding them.
Is youth radically different from adolescence ?
In an article published in this review (Galland, 1990), I took issue with the
preceding thesis on post-adolescence. The idea underlying my argument was
that youth was radically different from adolescence,
“We a re witnessing not only a
displacement of thresholds...
and the argument was
based on a study of the frequency of “intermediate stages of life” as a function
of social origin, education, and employment situation.
I defined living alone, in a small group
I found that such
stages were being practiced in all social classes and more frequently by occupied persons than students; they were not associated with unstable employment or unemployment. This confirmed the idea that they had been
deliberately chosen, a choice that consisted in “taking advantage of being
young and having a variety of experiences”.
The sociological hypothesis I advanced to interpret these results was based
on reference group theory : aspirations to upward social mobility increased the
distance between membership group and reference group, particularly among
young people of modest or middle-class background who were prolonging
their education. Youth was thus the moment of defining or redefining social
aspirations, aspirations that were no longer entirely determined by social
background and intergenerational transmission.
This thesis worked to establish a radical difference between youth and adolescence, or post-adolescence, though this was not clearly formulated in the
article itself. The idea was that though adolescents were culturally distinct,
they remained dependent on–and protected by– parents and/or teachers and
mentors of various kinds. In this sense, adolescence was closer to childhood
than adulthood. Young people, on the other hand, often acquired a kind of independence from the older generation, even if only partial–by living separately from parents, for example, even if parents continued to pay for their
lodging. However, young people had not yet attained fully adult roles, either
because their work situation was unstable or because they had deferred taking
on own-family roles.
According to this hypothesis, youth was not prolonged adolescence and
was not necessarily regressive. It had become a normal, functional phase that
prepared people to take on adult roles, with the understanding that they could
only do so gradually. Compared to Parsons’ thesis on adolescence, this definition
put less emphasis on cultural differentiation between youth and adulthood and
more on the sociological specificity of the youth phase in terms of how it organizes the life cycle. In this hypothesis, youth appears as a new phase of the
cycle, with its own functional properties.
Do empirical studies done over the last ten years validate this thesis, at
least partially ?
FIGURE I. - Desynchronization of work- and family-starting thresholds
Generations born in 1963-66
FIGURE I. – Desynchronization of work- and family-starting thresholds
Generations born in 1963-66
1st jobLateness in star ting working life
Stable employment Higher education: boys
Higher education: girls
End of studies
Girls with less than CAP Girls with baccalauréat * **
2 Early Late Boys with baccalauréat
-1-0,5 0 0,5 11st independent lodging
M arr iage
Girls with CAP
Departure from parents' home
Boys with CAP degree
Boys with less than CAP Lateness in starting a family
* CAP: Certificat d’Études Professionnelles, lowest-level vocational degree, taken around age 17.
** baccalauréat or bac: French general- or technical-education high school degree.
Source: Complementary youth survey for INSEE’s 1992 “Emploi” survey.
Note: The principal components analysis applies to all ages at which young people born 1963-66 entered
the stages of adult life. The first factor, a synthetic “Early-Late” axis, explains 43% of variance; the
second factor, which sets school-leaving and work-starting thresholds against family-starting ones for a
given degree of lateness, explains 24% of variance. Blank circles correspond to active variables, black
ones to illustrative variables–here, sex and education level by sex.
Complementary youth survey for INSEE’s 1992 “Emploi” survey.
It should be mentioned first of all that in the matter of time-tables for entering adult life, an INSEE survey conducted in 1992 confirmed both that each
new generation was starting the main stages at a later age and that work- and
family-starting thresholds had become desynchronized (Galland, 1995a).
This survey, designed jointly by INSEE
This was an important result as it showed that Cunningham’s third phase, beginning during the Second World War and characterized by relative simultaneity in crossing the two thresholds, was not relevant for the 1980s in France.
Early and late threshold crossing was fairly consistent for both events (as
shown by the first factor of the principal component analysis, Figure I). But
consistency was greater between school-leaving and work-starting thresholds
on the one hand, family-starting thresholds on the other, than between these
two sets of thresholds (as shown by the second factor in Figure I).
Starting to work and starting a family as ways of entering adulthood were
both occurring later, but they also seemed partly disconnected. Merely prolonging adolescence would have meant postponing crossing the different
thresholds in a way that did not weaken the connection between the two.
Figure I, on the other hand, presents an entirely new configuration. Disconnection between these sets of events seemed to suggest that an intermediate
phase was developing between childhood and maturity, one made up of various combinations of statuses, each pertaining to either adolescent or adult
roles. On the basis of the 1992 study I was able to calculate the median length
of time between first threshold crossed–leaving school– and what could be
considered the last–parenthood– as slightly more than 8 years for boys, 6 for
girls. This was a completely new result, different from both the adolescence
and prolonged adolescence models. The defining characteristic of the new life
phase was postponement of family-starting stages (leaving parental home,
living in a couple, getting married, becoming a parent), and this seemed at
least in part independent of prolonged education.
My results also called into question Parson’s divergent adolescent gender
roles. The 1992 survey data show extraordinarily similar paths of entry into
adulthood for girls and boys with higher education. Figure I shows that divergence in gender models is more accentuated when education level is low. At
lowest educational degree, own family was started particularly late. At these
levels, the unfavorable job market probably aggravated gender contrast : girls
without degrees more readily abandoned any plan of finding a job and quickly
started family life, whereas their male counterparts had no choice but to wait
until stable employment made it possible for them to live on their own. Boys’
cohabitation with parents was thus prolonged longer than girls’.
These contrasts between the sexes seem first and foremost remnants of the
declining traditional model, reactivated by the difficulties encountered by
young people trying to start working life with no educational degree. At the
top of the education ladder, convergence of gender models was high : girls and
boys with higher education had very similar patterns of postponing entry into
In a similar study conducted five years later, the same variables, applied to
more recent generations, produced a fairly similar array of work- and familystarting thresholds. Postponement among young educated women was greater,
however, giving them a higher average “lateness” score than young men.
Moreover, the threshold for leaving the parental home seems to have become
gradually disconnected from the other thresholds. I shall return to this important point later.
One question, however, was not resolved (or indeed raised) in the study of
1992 INSEE data (Galland, 1995a). The disconnection between work- and
family-starting thresholds is clear, but should this have been taken to mean
that the gap from one generation to the next was gradually growing, or merely
that it was being maintained despite more and more children attaining higher
education levels ? Given the earlier model, based not on statistics but historical studies and monographs (Cunningham, 2000; Prost, 1987), partial disconnection between work- and family-starting thresholds would seem to stand as
evidence of the latter phenomenon. It was not possible to check this hypothesis with 1992 data because that sample consisted exclusively of young people.
The 1997 study, which used a similar mode of questioning, comprised a
greater number of generations (persons born 1952-78) and therefore enabled
me to assess developments in patterns of entry into adult life from the early
1970s through the 1990s (Galland, 2000a).
With respect to Cunningham’s four historical patterns, the new data did not
really permit me to show how the 1970s model–which I shall call the “simultaneity model” to signify that its primary characteristic is compression of the
main stages of entry into adult life– evolved into the succeeding one, which
seems on the contrary characterized by disconnection between these thresholds. But I could investigate whether degree of disconnection increased or not
during the 1980s-90s.
I used a model for failure time data to examine how length of time between
events in young persons’ educational and working lives (leaving school, first
job) as well as family-related events (first independent lodging, living in a
couple, parenthood) have evolved from generation to generation, taking into
account socio-demographic changes that might help explain these intervals
(model presented in Appendix). Results for all generations studied are presented in Table I.
To keep Table I readily decipherable,
r esults f or...
Oldest to youngest generation trend results, “other things being equal”, and
intervals between education-employment events on the one hand, first independent lodging and living in a couple on the other, do not confirm the expected increasing disconnection between these stages. On the contrary, what
we observe for a given socio-economic situation is that the gap has narrowed
significantly in the most recent generations compared to the experience of
generations born 1952-53. This decrease was especially marked among young
non-bac-holders for interval differences from reference generation between
first job and own-family events. Other things being equal, young people with
this level of education born 1972-73, for example, moved into first independent lodging 3 to 4 years sooner after getting their first job than young people
born 1952-53, and started living in a couple 4 to 5 years sooner after first job.
While the results are not as clear or significant for young bac-holders, they
also indicate a decrease (though not for the most recent generations).
For young people without the bac, then, delay in completing education and
acceding to first job in each new generation has not been entirely transferred
to age of moving into first independent lodging and settling in a couple. In
fact, delay in starting work has increased more sharply than delay in starting a
family, which explains the narrower gap between these two stages.
These results clearly go against the widely accepted notion that delay in
reaching autonomy is due to a kind of complacency in young people that leads
them to deliberately prolong dependence on parents. Controlling for all
thresholds and characteristics of young people and their families over the generations shows that delay in attaining independence does not exceed delay induced by prolonging studies and starting working life later.
The diagnosis is completely different, however, for trends in length of time
between education-employment stages and parenthood (last part of Table I).
Here the contrast between young people is stronger by educational level.
Non-bac-holders born in the late 1960s and early 1970s became parents
sooner after getting first job, and sooner still after getting first stable job, than
their counterparts born in the early 1950s. Conversely, for bac-holders of the
same generations, the intervals between these events increased : parenthood
was postponed beyond delay induced by prolonging studies and starting working life later.
What can we conclude, at least tentatively, from these data ? Do they invalidate the argument that an intermediate space has opened up between family of
origin and starting own family ? My answer would be no, though they do lead
us to nuance and revise that argument by taking into account the fact that
length of this stage, and changes in it from one generation to the next, vary
greatly by beginning and end points selected for observation and by educational level.
Interval between first over-six-month job and moving into first independent lodging, for example, was fairly short for all generations considered
here, and has decreased since early 1950s generations (see Figure II). Young
people with little education led the trend of moving into independent lodging
faster after obtaining stable employment : half of boys without the bac born in
the early 1950s did not move into independent lodging until at least four years
after getting a stable job, whereas their counterparts born in the early 1970s
were living on their own in less than two years. Living in a couple comes
slightly later, but there also, especially among young people without the bac,
the length of time between starting working life and living with someone has
Young people without the bac born in the late 1960s started working early
(median age slightly over 17). In fact, the moment at which young people feel
the need to leave their parents and live in a couple of their own depends in
part on psychological factors that do not become manifest before a certain
age. This explains why, for young people born in the early 1950s who left
school relatively early, there was an interval of several years between starting
working life and acquiring personal independence, and why the first of these
ages could increase significantly (age of first job among non-bac-holders born
in the mid-1970s is over 21) without this affecting the second, thus narrowing
the gap between the two. Ages for economic and residential independence
came closer together, particularly among women of this educational level.
Paradoxically, then, the increased employment difficulties experienced by
young people with relatively short educations born in the early 1960s have
helped reactivate the model of moving simultaneously into the two stages of
adult life among young people at this educational level. Forced to remain longer in the parental home, beyond delay induced by prolonged studies, these
young people are now leaving home as soon as they have the economic means
to do so. But as we shall see, the ways they leave home have changed.
Once again, the diagnosis is completely different if we look at the last
stage of acceding to adult status, the one that definitively distances an individual from youth : taking on parental responsibilities. Other things being equal,
the length of time between this stage and the preceding educationaloccupational ones remains long for non-bac men and has increased for bac-holders
of both sexes, decreasing only for non-bac women (Figure II).
This seems to me decisive evidence for the claim that an intermediate
life-cycle space between adolescence and adulthood has developed and
grown. Despite the fact that school-leaving age is going up and work situation
is stabilizing increasingly later in life, young degree-holders, whatever their
origin or family characteristics, are increasingly postponing the moment of
starting a family. And this intermediate life space is increasing, at least among
young people pursuing higher education.
A long-term trend in non-family lifestyles has also...
It is important, however, to take into account two new research results.
First, the starting point of this intermediate stage, the boundary symbolized by
leaving the parental home, is much more ambiguous than I thought it was ten
years ago. This very ambiguity is a defining characteristic of the end point. In
this sense, though youth is not simply prolonged adolescence, it nonetheless
shares more traits with post-adolescence than supposed. Second, the model of
youth I proposed in the early 1990s on the basis of the French situation is in
no way generally applicable, even if we limit the area studied to developed
countries. The many international comparative studies conducted in the last
ten years show that each country has its own specific ways of organizing the
passage from adolescence to adulthood, in accordance with its cultural traditions and institutional arrangements. Let us see if, despite this, some common
lessons may be drawn from the French case.
Long-term changes in living arrangements, US young adults 18-24
Living arrangements 1940 1950 1960 1970 1980
Child* 62.8 51.1 42 42.3 45.5
Family head or spouse 23.8 33.7 39.6 36 28.2
Unrelated individual** 13.4 15.2 18.4 21.7 26.3
Total 100 100 100 100 100
Percentage of children who are 82.4 77.1 69.5 66.1 63.4
not heads of household***
* children or other relatives of head of household; ** individuals not living with their family; ***% 3/(1+3).
FIGURE II. - Other-things-being-equal time intervals between education-employment stages and
own-family stages by generation
FIGURE II. – Other-things-being-equal time intervals between education-employment stages and
own-family stages by generation
A. – bac
10 MenNumber of years
-1 54-55 56-57 58-59 60-61 62-63 64-65 66-67 68-69 70-71 72-73 74-75
-3 Leaving school-independent lodging
-4 Employment-independent lodging
-5 Leaving school-couple
-7 Leaving school-parenthood
6 WomenNumber of years
54-55 56-57 58-59 60-61 62-63 64-65 66-67 68-69 70-71 72-73 74-75
-4 Leaving school-independent lodging
-5 Employment-independent lodging
-7 Leaving school-parenthood
Source: INSEE’s 1997 “Jeunes et carrières” survey [Young people and careers].
Note: Data comes from parametric model for failure time data used in Table I. Each point on the curves
corresponds to interval for 1952-53 reference generation plus or minus other-things-being-equal
differences from succeeding generations.
INSEE’s 1997 “Jeunes et carrières” survey [Young people and careers].
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B. + bac
11 MenNumber of years
-1 54-55 56-57 58-59 60-61 62-63 64-65 66-67 68-69 70-71 72-73 74-75
-5 Leaving-school-independent lodging
-6 Employment-independent lodging
-8 Leaving school-couple
-10 Leaving school-parenthood
10 WomenNumber of years
-1 54-55 56-57 58-59 60-61 62-63 64-65 66-67 68-69 70-71 72-73 74-75 rn
-5 Leaving school-independent lodging
-6 Employment-independent lodging
-7 Leaving school-couple
-10 Leaving school-parenthhood
Gradual detachment from family-of-origin world
My 1992 study of French students (Galland,1995b) showed that the majority of them remained residentially dependent on their families, but that this
could take two very different forms : either students resided in parents’ home
during the week, or they lived in separate lodging nonetheless paid for or provided by parents. Of a representative sample of students enrolled in second
year of undergraduate studies and second year of graduate studies at the universities of Besançon, Rennes and Nanterre,
These levels of study correspond approximately to ages...
28% of all students lived in
lodging paid for by parents. This corresponded to 31% of Besançon students
and 38% of Rennes students, but only 13% of students living in Nanterre
[large university just outside Paris]. This fairly popular living arrangement,
which may be defined as living away from family while remaining economically and subjectively dependent on them, was especially characteristic of students from places other than France’s major cities and towns, who generally
must go elsewhere to continue their studies.
Such students often had a kind of “double life”. During the week they led
their “young person’s life”, seeing friends, going out, consuming the cultural
offerings of the university town. They then returned to the family home for
the weekend–with their dirty laundry. And while at first this seemed a lifestyle specific to students from outside major cities, later research studies show
that it had developed and spread among other categories of young people.
Nearly one young person in three born 1968-71 lived away from home for
the first time in housing paid for by parents or made available by family; in
generations born five years earlier this was true of only one in five (Table II).
Above all, this way of leaving family of origin spread rapidly among young
people not pursuing higher education. For generations surveyed in 1992, for
example, one young man without a degree in ten had proceeded this way,
whereas five years later it was one in four. Moreover, as Catherine
Villeneuve-Gokalp has shown (2000), more and more young people are benefiting from this kind of assisted departure : in 1997 three times as many men
under 24 were living away than in 1992, two and a half times as many women
–a major, rapid change in young people’s access to autonomy. Other characteristics of their living arrangements show similarly slower detachment from
family of origin. For example, more and more young people have access to
two residences–they live with their parents but not permanently– and a relatively high proportion of young people who have moved out of parents’ home
come back to live with them not long thereafter (an estimated one in five departures are not definitive; Villeneuve-Gokalp, ibid.).
We should therefore follow Buck and Scott (1993) in differentiating between two stages in leaving the parental home : living away, ie, living outside
family-of-origin household while maintaining ties with it, and leaving home
proper, ie, moving into independent, self-paid lodging.
TABLE II. - Young people leaving parental home by moving into parent-subsidized lodging by
generation, sex, and educational level (%)
TABLE II. – Young people leaving parental home by moving into parent-subsidized lodging by
generation, sex, and educational level (%)
< CAP 11 26
CAP, BEP* 8 23
Men Bac or equivalent 18 51
> Bac 42 58
Still in school 45 49
All 18 38
< CAP 9 16
CAP, BEP 8.5 14
Bac or equivalent 24 28
> Bac 42 50
Sill in school 65.5 55.5
All 20.5 30
1 Born 1963-66,26-29 in 1992.
2 Born 1968-71,26-29 in 1997.
*successive low-level vocational degrees.
Source: INSEE’s 1992 “Jeunes” and 1997 “Jeunes et carrières” surveys.
Note: 11% of men born 1963-66 who left parents’home and left school without a degree at least equivalent to the CAP had their first lodging paid for by parents or made available by family.
INSEE’s 1992 “Jeunes” and 1997 “Jeunes et carrières” surveys.
These two moments are becoming more and more distinct. Young people
move into independent lodging at increasingly later ages, whereas age for first
living away from home has remained stable since the early 1990s (Table III;
TABLE III. - Median ages for living away and leaving home for two age groups
TABLE III. – Median ages for living away and leaving home for two age groups
1963-67 1968-72 1963-67 1968-72
Living away 21.8 22 20.5 20.5
Leaving home 22.8 23.9 21.5 21.9
Source: INSEE’s 1992 “Jeunes” and 1997 “Jeunes et carrières” survey.
INSEE’s 1992 “Jeunes” and 1997 “Jeunes et carrières” survey.
In other words the parental or family assistance that has been observed in
many studies (Attias-Donfut, 1995; Paugam and Zoyem, 1997; Crenner,
1999) seems to enable young French people to circumvent the difficulties of
starting working life, difficulties that have been more pronounced in France
than other European countries, and to experience a kind of partial independence in spite of them. It is tempting to see this pattern of reaching autonomy
as a kind of implicit intergenerational compromise specific to France. Insiders, members of intermediate age strata, have been more protected in
France than elsewhere; their occupational and career mobility is low, as is the
risk that they will suffer unemployment; this situation means that the burden
of being “flexible”, ie, accepting less than stable jobs, falls on outsiders, those
just entering the labor market.
In 1982, young people were twice as
likely as adults...
But younger generations’ relative disadvantage is partially compensated for by a kind of informal redistribution within
families that enables young people to enjoy some degree of emancipation,
even if this is conditioned for a time by parental assistance.
European models of becoming adult
The second important shift from the 1992 study is that even though there
has been a trend of prolonging youth in most European countries, cultural and
institutional models of becoming adult remain extraordinarily diverse, as is
readily seen from the range of ages for leaving the family home (Table IV).
TABLE IV. - Proportion of young people in Europe living with their parents
TABLE IV. – Proportion of young people in Europe living with their parents
Age B DK D EL E F IRL I L NL A P FIN UK EU14
18-21 95 73 91 88 98 86 95 96 90 83 85 93 72 79 90
22-25 68 15 51 67 89 53 74 88 64 38 52 82 21 43 63
26-29 26 5 21 47 59 18 34 63 31 10 34 53 7 15 32
All 61 30 51 67 83 51 71 83 57 39 54 78 32 42 60
Source: Eurostat, European Community Households Panel, 3rd wave (1996).
Reference: Chambaz (2000).
Note: Belgium (B), Denmark (DK), Germany (D), Greece (EL), Spain (E), France (F), Ireland (IRL),
Italy (I), Luxembourg (L), the Netherlands (NL), Austria (A), Portugal (P), Finland (FIN), the United
Kingdom (UK), the 14 member states of the European Union (EU14).
Eurostat, European Community Households Panel, 3rd wave (1996).
There is a clear contrast between southern and northern European countries. Young Mediterraneans start living away extremely late, whereas young
Nordics do so very early. Between the ages of 22 and 25, for example, only
15% of Danes are still living in parents’ home, compared to 88% of Italians
and 89% of Spaniards. As Alessandro Cavalli has noted (1993,2000), the pattern for Mediterraneans does not mean they are subject to the unwritten rules
of an archaic family model. In reality, though they continue living with their
parents, these young adults have great freedom to lead their private lives. It is
rather that southern cultural traditions make living entirely outside a family
structure unlikely, and perhaps most important, the economic conditions that
would allow early access to autonomy don’t exist in these countries, characterized by high unemployment and little in the way of welfare assistance for
Broadly speaking, we can say that becoming adult is the equivalent of acquiring a number of “attributes”, including holding a stable job and being financially autonomous, meaning one can survive on one’s own resources;
having independent living arrangements, a sign of autonomy from parents;
and lastly, settling into a couple, meaning one has acquired a certain emotional stability. I could have chosen other criteria, of course, but regularly
published opinion surveys show that young people envision their personal futures by means of relatively classic representations of work and family that
are themselves consistent with the above attributes. We can then compare
speeds at which young Europeans of different countries acquire all or some of
To represent independence attributes, I derived four variables from EU
panel data : living or not living with an older-generation family member, living or not living in a couple, disposing or not of income that comes mainly
from work, and holding a permanent or over-one-year temporary job. The survey is both longitudinal, covering three successive waves (1994,1995,1996)
and extensive, covering several European countries.
The 1994 wave included respondents
from 12 countries :...
I was thus able to
measure speeds at which young people of different countries reach one,
several, or all adult attributes. In Figure III countries are ranked by “degree of
FIGURE III. - European countries ranked by young people’s degree of independence, 1996
FIGURE III. – European countries ranked by young people’s degree of independence, 1996
France score 1,2
Belgium score 3,4
0% 20% 40% 60% 80% 100%
Source: European Households Panel. Statistical analysis by Cécile Van de Velde (2000) for the Observatoire National de la Pauvreté et de l’Exclusion; see also Galland (2000b).
Note: Independence scores range from complete dependence (0), meaning that the individual has no independence attributes (living away from parents, living in a couple, financial autonomy, stable
employment) to “advanced independence” (3-4), where the individual has three or four of these attributes. Scores were calculated for 1996, two years after first interview.
European Households Panel. Statistical analysis by Cécile Van de Velde (2000) for the Observatoire National de la Pauvreté et de l’Exclusion; see also Galland (2000b).
The French situation seems to fall between the Mediterranean countries
(Portugal, Greece, Spain, Italy), where young people accede very slowly to independence (60% of young Italians had not acquired a single independence
attribute in 1996), and the Anglo-Saxon and northern European countries
(Denmark, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Germany), where they accede
much faster. The contrasts between the two ends of the scale are striking : 40%
of young Danes had reached nearly complete independence in 1996 (and more
than 25% of young French people), as opposed to 5% of young Italians.
Could the different speeds at which young Europeans attain independence
be explained by a structural factor : length of initial education ? Here situations
are very different. The same data informs us that in 1997 more than 80% of
young Britons had finished initial studies as opposed to 35% of young Belgians and a little over 40% of young French people.
The answer is clearly no, however : length of initial education is not a decisive factor in explaining speed of attaining independence. We see that certain
countries where rate for prolonging studies is high (Denmark) are in fact
among those where young people attain near-complete independence the
quickest, whereas in others, where initial education is relatively short
(Greece, Portugal), young people wait a long time before becoming independent. This impression is confirmed if we compare independence scores among
young people who have completed their studies (Galland, 2000b). The results
do not fundamentally disturb the ranking in Figure 3 for students and non-students combined.
How is it, then, that for most countries length of initial education does not
suffice to explain differences in speed of acquiring adult attributes ? First, in
many European countries the boundary marking end of initial education does
not play the important symbolic role it does for the French. Education and employment are sharply distinguished in France as two necessarily consecutive
parts of life, whereas in the Anglo-Saxon and northern European countries,
the two often overlap.
Moreover, if we rank countries by percentage of young people still in
school who have acquired at least one independence attribute, we get results
very similar to those for young people who have completed initial education.
In fact, social, institutional and cultural models affect the speed of acquiring
adult attributes, regardless of whether young people have completed their
studies. Denmark offers a striking example of the influence of such factors.
What it means to attain adult status in Denmark is very different from in
France. Every individual age 18 or over is considered an adult in Denmark,
and this status involves not only political rights and penal responsibility but
also social rights : Danish society is unofficially held responsible for facilitating young people’s access to autonomy. In practical terms this means extremely generous welfare aid in the form of state grants for s tudents not
determined on the basis of parents’ income (since young people themselves
are considered adults), unemployment assistance, as well as aid to young persons without resources (Mahé, 2001).
Table V shows that while Danes leave the parental home and start living in
a couple at a very young age, this is not because they have a stable job–on
that score they are quite average– but rather because they have rapid access to
sufficient financial resources. Six out of ten young Danes receive welfare of
some sort, amounting to a total well above the European Union average. Social welfare benefits represent more than half of young beneficiaries’ resources (Chambaz, 2000).
TABLE V. - Countries ranked by respective independence attainment scores (1994-96)
TABLE V. – Countries ranked by respective independence attainment scores (1994-96)
Rank Housing situation Living in a couple Income Stable job
1 Denmark Denmark United Kingdom United Kingdom
2 United Kingdom United Kingdom Denmark Luxemburg
3 The Netherlands Luxemburg Germany Germany
4 France Germany Luxemburg Ireland
5 Germany France The Netherlands Portugal
6 Luxemburg Portugal Ireland The Netherlands
7 Greece Greece Belgium Denmark
8 Belgium Belgium Portugal France
9 Portugal The Netherlands France Belgium
10 Ireland Spain Spain Italy
11 Spain Ireland Greece Greece
12 Italy Italy Italy Spain
Note: Each country was granted a number of points according to its ranking for each of the indicators,
sex, age group and year. This calculation produces the table above, a synthetic ranking of EU countries in
each of the independence-attainment areas for the three temporal observation points combined.
Young French people are in a very different situation from their Danish
counterparts. They too live away and start living in a couple at a relatively
young age, but only obtain stable employment and autonomous income when
they are much older. Young French people thus find means to experience a
form of independence early, regardless of their relatively late economic independence and a welfare benefits level way below the EU average. Parental
aid, sometimes supplemented by welfare assistance (for access to public housing, for instance), enables them to be partially independent before becoming
masters of their resources.
The French model of reaching autonomy thus seems to fall between the
family-centered Mediterranean one and the welfare-state Nordic one. Like the
first, the family plays an essential role with regard to young adults, but it intervenes in a different way. In the French model, family intervention involves
helping from a distance; this m akes it possible for m any French young
persons to experience an initial version of autonom y without com pletely
breaking their child-like ties to the family. In terms of public assistance, the
French model is closer to northern European arrangements (though aid is less
generous) than to those in the southern countries, where the proportion of
18-29-year-old welfare recipients is very low (5 to 10%, as opposed to 50% in
But while young French people who have completed their studies do not
attain independence much later than the young Europeans who attain it earliest, the situation is not the same for young French people who leave school
after high school or earlier. One young French person in four who left school
at these levels had not acquired a single independence attribute in 1996, and
this figure is closer to that for Mediterranean than Anglo-Saxon or Nordic
countries. Young French people with low educational degrees thus seem to
suffer a specific handicap in attaining independence, and this distinguishes
them more sharply than in other countries from the average situation of young
Parsons proposed a reading of American adolescence in the early 1940s in
primarily cultural terms : the spread and prolonging of studies beyond high
school went hand in hand with the appearance of behavior that facilitated and
systematized a kind of frivolity specific to the archetype of the student. That
model does not suffice as a sociological interpretation of the life phase called
youth, which today is being prolonged beyond physiological adolescence.
Indeed, what we are seeing today is very different. In a way, “youth” has
lost the main characteristics that, according to Parsons, defined adolescence :
the sharp opposition between it and adulthood, and contrasted, stereotypical
gender roles. Today’s young people are not frivolous, carefree, or eager to
push the constraints of adulthood ever further into the future–though this description could apply to “post-adolescence”. They are instead learning to be
autonomous, but the process is slow, complex, sometimes chaotic, and above
all the pace can vary greatly by the various areas or life events that taken together define adult status. This last characteristic radically distinguishes this
model of youth from the preceding one. Furthermore, young people are likely
to play on the new range of possibilities, “accelerating” acquisition of one
adult attribute while slowing down acquisition of another, each according to
his or her personal resources and the assistance available to her or him. It is
striking how, over the generations, young people have not sought to prolong
cohabitation with parents beyond what is implied by pursuing a longer education. On the contrary, they seem more eager and impatient for initial experience of autonomy. But such autonomy is often ambiguous : partial and
reversible. The family remains present and accompanies young people until
independence is fully attained.
Youth is therefore no longer defined these days by “irresponsibility”. It is
rather the gradual learning of responsibilities, under more or less close protection from family or the state, depending on country. In southern European
countries, family provides the main support during the process, whereas in
northern Europe, cultural models as well as institutional arrangements give
the state a decisive role in helping young people attain autonomy.
Gradualness, namely when it comes to detachment from family of origin, is
the main characteristic of today’s French model of transition from one life
phase to another. In this respect, my 1990 interpretation needs to be revised.
When I presented youth as a kind of “parentheses” in the “normal” organization of the life course, I had probably overestimated its singularity as a phase
clearly distinct from childhood and adulthood. In this sense, the thesis I defended then more closely followed Parsons’ model. In fact, youth is not a
parentheses, but establishes continuity between two other life phases – adolescence and adulthood– that in earlier times clearly stood opposed : continuity in that the different attributes of adult life are acquired through stages over
several years, and continuity in that each stage is broken down into several
situations that together represent a gradual transition from entrance to exit
Nor can youth be defined in opposition to adult “culture”, as Parsons affirmed. Adolescence, when Parsons was writing, was clearly distinct from
adulthood and could be readily experienced as a kind of counter-culture, a
separate continent from the rest of society; its cultural traits gave young people a strong collective identity founded on opposition to the older generation.
But this identity is all the more marked for being temporary, and except in the
case of a few “lost soldiers”, it irreversibly comes to an end when one reaches
Youth today cannot easily be lived as a cultural model characterized by a
sharp break with the older generation and the rest of society. The continuum
that it creates between adolescence and adulthood effaces both morphological
and cultural contrasts. Furthermore, young people today are the children of
generations who ushered in the 1960s revolution in mores and lifestyles. Recent studies (Galland, 2000c) show great consistency among value systems of
French persons aged 18 to 50, even 60. Young people who, like their parents,
have liberal attitudes when it comes to private life expect their parents to help
them progress through the stages that will lead them to independence, and
their parents readily meet this expectation. Individually, then, young French
people have little reason to oppose their parents’ generation. Though collectively, generational inequalities have increased (Chauvel, 1998), the strength
of family ties seems to have partially compensated for such objective effects
while effacing subjective ones. However, this model of a negotiated transition
toward adulthood is not valid for all young people. Some, primarily those
without educational degrees, are excluded for the long term from reaching
adult status, and since they often come from poor families, their parents often
cannot offer them much more than a place to live–with them. Among these
young people, well-known signs of revolt are manifest, signs that have little
in common with the romantic idealism of the 1960s.
Translation : Amy Jacobs
Previously published : RFS, 2001,42,4