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Communications and Marketing

Project aims to nail down today’s interpretation of ‘adulthood’

A team of a five sociology and anthropology students plus one Richter Scholar has read more than 400 articles and conducted nearly 300 interviews in an effort to help define what it means to be an adult in today’s America.

The students are part of Associate Professor of Anthropology Holly Swyers’ research called, “The Adulthood Project: Examining Social Change and New Characteristics of Adulthood in the 21st Century U.S.” 

“There’s so much we’ve done, and there’s a lot more to do,” said Richard Fordwor ’16, the Richter Scholar assigned to the task for a 10-week experience.

Other team members include Elizabeth Mescher ‘15, Nicholas Jordan ‘14, Danielle Leonardo ‘14, Samantha Molinaro ‘14, and Audrey Patterson ‘14.

Swyers explains the project on her Lake Forest College web page: “Over the past 20 years, we have seen an increasing emphasis on college education, a widespread pattern of single heads of households, and a significant delay in starting families among American young people. This project seeks to understand the social and economic conditions underlying these trends and to explore how these trends affect the expectations and experiences of Americans making the transition to adulthood in the early 21st century.”

Fordwor said the group rides the Metra and CTA into Chicago one or two days each week, depending on the week, and spreads out — in Ravenswood, Bronzeville, the Loop and more — to interview passers-by on the street. They ask each participant the same five or six questions. Most focus on demographics, but one asks for a simple yes-no-sometimes answer to the question, “Do you consider yourself an adult?” When the group returns, they code the data for future analysis.

Concurrently, each student is expected to gather information about a specific topic related to adulthood. This part of the project has included a trip to the Northwestern Library. Fordwor’s assignment is to explore how the stability of the economy affects an individual’s perception of adulthood.

Fordwor said he enjoys the practical skill of interviewing and hearing the spectrum of responses for participants. Prior to this project, he said he probably wouldn’t even have stopped a stranger on the street to ask for directions.

He also recognizes the importance of collecting and sorting data to identify how the world is changing and to explain why.

“Hopefully by the end we’ll have an answer,” he said.