Coming of Age in Rural America

By and — Diversity in Education Special Edition Contributor
Updated on May 17, 2010

Becoming an Adult Today Isn't What it Used to Be

Young adults today are very different from prior generations, and a typical route to adulthood no longer exists. For instance, many young adults under the age of 30 are not married and live with their parents. They are often in school and working at the same time, and they frequently change jobs or hold several part-time positions. In general, young adults now take longer to finish school, settle into marriages or partnerships, and begin parenting.

Juggling family, education, and work in new ways causes many young adults to experience a great sense of uncertainty. They are turning to their parents and family members for support more than ever before, and in turn, parents, educators, and researchers want to know how to help.

Rural Youth Face Special Challenges in Entering Adulthood

Although rural communities can provide many assets for youth, such as smaller schools and tightly connected networks of adults and peers, some rural youth assume significant risks compared to their urban counterparts.

  • Historically, rural youth have had lower postsecondary educational achievement, lower academic attainment expectations, and fewer career goals.
  • They also expect to marry and have children earlier.
  • Rural communities also have high poverty rates, limited resources for schools including low teacher salaries and declining enrollment, and strains on family life.
  • They have few options for post secondary schooling and jobs in their home towns.
  • To be competitive in today's economy, rural youth often face the difficult decision of leaving behind their communities and families to move to bigger towns and cities where they must confront very different ways of life.
  • Those who choose to stay must grapple with limited opportunities, often leading to a patchwork of multiple jobs.
  • They also form families of their own earlier and often do not have higher education and job training to bolster their chances of economic success.
  • Unfortunately, even in the midst of all these challenges, some rural youth have more avoidant coping strategies.

Sense of Purpose, Proactive Coping Skills, and Supportive Communities Provide Hope for Rural Youth

These cumulative risks can often outweigh the benefits of small-town life, but there are strategies to help rural youth succeed. Evidence from our current study in a rural Oregon county suggests that young people who feel supported by their community, have a purposeful outlook, and demonstrate proactive coping skills reap important benefits. Specifically, they are more satisfied with their lives, feel able to meet their personal goals, and feel able to support themselves financially.

Three Things that Can Help Rural Youth

  1. Supportive Communities

    Many rural communities are struggling to compete in the global economy. Changes in agriculture, manufacturing, and natural resource management raise several questions about the economic future and changing identities of rural communities. In the midst of these strains, the assets of rural communities can provide strong support for youth.

    • The close-knit support often found in rural communities can offer a distinct safeguard against risks as youth grow into adults.
    • Smaller school sizes can be beneficial for positive socio-emotional outcomes of young people.
    • Children embedded in multi-generational networks of family members and adults are more resilient as grown-ups.
    • Rural communities provide support systems for youth through these kinds of social networks and family ties.

    On the flip side, individuals in rural areas also lack anonymity. Youth who are excluded from social circles do not have these protective ties, especially with peers. They are left vulnerable because they have little or no support. Parents and other adults in these communities should be mindful of supporting all youth, especially those who may be marginalized by their peers and do not have strong or supportive connections.

  2. Purposeful Outlook.

    According to psychologist William Damon, a sense of purpose is the intention to accomplish something meaningful for oneself that holds significance to the world and others beyond self. A purposeful outlook seems especially critical in helping rural youth deal with "hard knocks" as they become adults and assume responsibility for themselves and others.

    Youth with a strong sense of purpose have higher rates of:

    • Overall well-being.
    • Achievements in education and work.
    • Positive social behavior.
    • Self-esteem.
    • Good parenting skills.
  3. Proactive Coping Skills.

    Individuals with proactive coping skills are able to plan their futures, manage their emotions, anticipate stress, and find the resources they need. Proactive coping skills are akin to practical everyday problem-solving skills.

    Individuals with proactive coping skills:

    • Value flexibility, essential in today's changing world.
    • Are better able to navigate schools, workplaces, and other social settings to find what they need to help them succeed.
    • Can manage multiple roles and responsibilities and deal with changes they encounter along the way.
    • Can better manage being overloaded with full-time school and part-time job responsibilities.
    • Have the skills to communicate with bosses or landlords and negotiate problems as they arise.
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