Article: Becoming adult: transitions in a context of disadvantage

First Published: 6th April 2018 | Author: Eric Carlin | Tags: , , , ,

The transition into adulthood can be a tricky terrain for young people to navigate. Using a case study approach, Eric Carlin explores the experiences of young people from Pilton, North Edinburgh as they reflect on their transition into adulthood. Carlin considers how these experiences impacted on their identity, social networks, behaviours and actions.

This paper draws on research carried out in 2012 and 2013 to explore young people’s experiences of transition into adulthood in Pilton, a disadvantaged neighbourhood in North Edinburgh, including considering how young people’s social networks influence their perspectives and actions. Cote and Bynner (2008) use the term ‘social’ markers of becoming adult to describe structural changes in people’s lives, such as becoming a parent, finding employment and leaving the parental home. ‘Behavioural’ markers are also important (Cote and Bynner, 2008); these include individuals changing social behaviours, for example, by ceasing leisure activities that included fighting and vandalism. This study found that there is a constant interplay between the social and the behavioural. However, in an uncertain social context, this study provides evidence that young people emphasise ‘behavioural’ markers’ as being more directly related to their personal experiences, than ‘social’, as the latter are more dependent on social events over which individual young people may have little or no control.


This was a mixed methods, though mainly qualitative, case study, which is an appropriate way to capture the complexities, multiple perspectives and range of experiences of young people as they establish adult identities and relationships (Yin, 2009, 1993). The intention was to allocate centre stage in the analysis to young people’s perspectives, and the richest sources of data for this research were 23 semi-structured interviews that were conducted with 26 young people. The fieldwork also included 16 participant observation sessions in Pilton Youth and Children’s Project (PYCP), 9 semi-structured individual interviews with staff who work with local young people, interviews with two local politicians and two discussion sessions with local mothers. It was negotiated and agreed from the outset with key workers and with research participants that the place and venues for the fieldwork would be named; it was important to tell the story of people in this place. However, personal details were anonymised and pseudonyms were used for individuals.

The research participants were, on the whole, young people who continued to use youth services at an older age than in other similar studies (for example, MacDonald and Marsh, 2005, in Teesside), where it was noted that young people, having ‘grown out’ of youth services described feeling that they had nothing to do, other than wander the streets. It is possible that the young people in the Pilton study may be more likely than others to have had family problems and difficulties at school and engagement with criminal justice agencies. Youth services provided important support for many of these young people.

Adult identities

Cote and Bynner (2008) explore how young people experience the development of new adult identities, and the social and behavioural markers which affirm these.  Some studies (Deuchar, 2009; Holligan and Deuchar, 2009; MacDonald and Marsh, 2005) suggest that, for some young people, this means emotionally disengaging from previous friendships, notably where these friendships have included shared behaviours deemed by wider society to be unacceptable, such as involvement in groups perceived to be ‘gangs’. For others, new experiences and new friendships are integrated into young people’s lives, with little difficulty and old friendships and relationships are renegotiated.

Barry (2005a, 2005b) and MacDonald and Marsh (2005) discuss the sociological importance of transitions, such as the move into new family formations and into criminal and/or drug careers (MacDonald and Marsh, 2005). Others have noted that, although young people may live with their parents for longer than past generations did, they also increasingly engage in ‘adult’ practices such as contributing to the family economy, looking after younger siblings, driving, voting, drinking and having sex (Te Riele, 2004). However, MacDonald and Marsh (2001) usefully point out that the transitions marked by more advantaged young people as important are more likely to be related to work, whereas for disadvantaged young people, transitions are more likely to be marked as including parenthood, becoming involved in crime and unemployment, albeit interwoven with periods of work, typically in low-paid, casual jobs.

 Adult too soon?

For many young people in Pilton, the arrival of adulthood is tinged with regret and a sense of loss. The future seems full of responsibilities and many people gave the impression that they felt that adulthood had come too soon, though their reasons for this vary. For example, John regretted the sense that carefree fun was being relegated to the past and he was torn between his genuine enjoyment of the new ‘adult’ world of work (as a trainee in a hair salon) and ‘having a laugh’ with his friends:

Ah huv ma childish moments but when I’m at work and stuff, ah’m like, ah feel mair ae an adult. But when ah’m roon ma pals an that, ah can be mair, younger. Like, act younger, ye dinnae need tae act responsible.

Grace’s regrets at leaving the world of childhood were very different. She described how problems in her family, including sickness and drug and alcohol issues, had meant that she had had to take on caring responsibilities at a young age and consequently she felt that she had missed out on a carefree childhood. She wanted to remain a child to some extent so as to have the experiences that she felt had been denied her:

Because ah’ve never really lived a childhood that much… Ah think there’s more childhood to come because I really huvnae had one.

However, not all young people regard the move into adulthood with a sense of loss. Leona, for example, was excited by the changes she was experiencing and anticipating what lay ahead. She described how her relationship with a close friend changed as they both moved into employment.  She conceptualised this as a realignment of management arrangements for the friendship, rather than a break with the past:

Wi’ jobs, shifts change so we do see each other but just not quite, it’s not like teenage best friends. It works like adult best friends now.

Social and behavioural markers of adulthood

Some studies have suggested that the reasons that young people can be ambivalent about becoming adult can be related to what has been termed, their ‘yo–yo’ lives (European Group for Integrated Social Research, 2001; Molgat, 2007;  Wyn and White, 1997), whereby they might for example, move out from their parents’ home and then return and leave several times. In terms of ‘social’ markers, such as getting a job or their own home, for many young people in Pilton, the ‘yo-yo’ had yet to go up. As I will go on to describe, as yet, the social markers that young people described as signifying achievement of adulthood bear little relationship to their own lived experiences. Even where ‘social’ markers of adulthood were clearly evident, some young people were unsure about whether they had yet reached the stage where they would confidently describe themselves as ‘adult’ or whether they wanted to do so. Although all of these young people were over sixteen, only one person, Tom, had left the home of a parent or other family carer to co-habit with a partner. Tom had been to University, was currently employed and lived with his girlfriend, just outside the neighbourhood. However, he still felt that he was not ready, ‘to grow up yet…not ready for kids, not quite ready for a mortgage yet, that sort of aspect. More grown up stuff’.

For some young people, acknowledgement by self and others of having attained ‘social’ markers of adulthood influenced their behaviours, which then provided more evidence of adult identity. Thus, leisure activities such as drinking alcohol and having sex were specifically cited by several young people as providing social markers evidencing adulthood and encouraging ‘adult’ behaviours. The opportunity to socialise in adult bars and nightclubs (including before the age of 18) was experienced as a significant social marker of transition to adulthood for Oonagh and Patsy. As a consequence, they indicated that they needed to adjust their behaviour in these new spaces where ‘running crazy’ could be construed as immature behaviour, ‘like children’. Leona emphasised more strongly that she had become aware of assuming an adult social identity around the time when she bought a car and got a ‘proper’ job in a bar:

I got my first car in 2011 in May. I got my 1st proper job in 2011 in July. And I think it was, I think it was that year, it was about, some point that year, when I was working at the King James pub.

Having noted these social markers of adult identity, Leona went on to discuss how changes in her leisure activities through establishing new friendship groups in pubs and clubs in the centre of the city meant that the social markers of her adult identity were reinforced and confirmed by behavioural markers, i.e. drinking in adult contexts.

Unlike Leona, most of the young people in this study had not had such validation of their identity by consumerist ‘social’ markers, such as finding a job or buying a car. For them, behavioural markers were, as in Cote and Bynner’s study (2008), increasingly important, potentially filling the spaces vacated by the lack of opportunities to achieve in externally validated ‘social’ terms. Thus, many young people described changing behaviours such as ceasing to be involved in street-based leisure activities, moving out of friendship groups involved in petty acts of vandalism and violence, stopping going to the youth club, being more ‘responsible’ in attitudes and motivation in relation to finding a job and taking more care than previously in one’s sexual behaviour. Throughout the study there were repeated descriptions of how people would become involved in anti-social, including violent, behaviours from around the age of 12 to 16 and then, realising that they were moving into adulthood, they would decide that they had to be more responsible and organised. However, even these changes were sometimes resented as an unavoidable part of growing up. Vincent, for example, described moving out of riotous and fun group behaviours into adult responsibilities that were troubling:

Like, actually getting ready to go out tae have a laugh wi’ your friends. Meeting up somewhere. Going away. Going daein’ something. Fannyin’ about. Smashin’ windows, do this, do that…Maturity means getting up, looking after your girlfriend, making sure she’s alright, looking respectable, looking after your mum and dad and making sure they’re alright.

While young people consistently expressed the view that they could exercise a strong degree of agency in selecting and managing their social relations, they were also critical about what they regarded as the failure of others to take responsibility for their own decisions. These attitudes surfaced frequently in discussions about sexual behaviours and parenthood. A few people suggested that some young women actively choose to become pregnant, so as to qualify for state-supported housing and welfare benefits, but a more common view was that some young people passively and accidentally drifted into parenthood. This appeared to have been the case with two young women, Karen and Irene, who were pregnant at the time of the study. Neither seemed to have intended becoming pregnant and they were vague about planning for their child’s care. Neither was living with the father. Irene described her feelings about becoming a mother in terms reminiscent of Turner’s study (Turner, 2004), which found that young women believed that teenage motherhood could limit a young woman’s freedom, curtail relationship prospects and require her to mature emotionally. There were also similarities with other studies that discuss young people’s identity construction (for example, Catan, 2004; Newburn et al., 2005), in that young people described feeling adult in one sense but not in another. Irene said that she doubted whether she was an adult as there were experiences that you needed to be an adult in order to manage, such as becoming a parent:

Me: You’re not sure if you’re an adult?

Irene:  Nuh.

Me:  So how will you know when you are?

Irene: Dunno. Like there’s like things that, like, ye need tae, like, be an adult for.

Me: Like what?

Irene:  Dunno. Like, if ye’re gonnae have a bairn, ye need tae be an adult.

Me: So do you want to have children?

Irene: Eh, ah’m pregnant.

As someone describing a stronger sense of self-empowerment than these, Xander decried what he regarded as others’ irresponsibility and emphasised that he possessed the decision-making power to conform to the social norms that he respected, which included delaying fatherhood until he could be in a position to provide properly for a child and partner:

See nowadays, thirteen, fourteen, they’re having bairns and having kids and that. I don’t know how, so when they’re fourteen, when they’re only twenty-eight, their kid’s goin’ tae be their age and they have their kid, if they have it at fourteen, they’re gonnae be twenty-eight, not even hitting thirty yet and they’re a granny.

Often, there was more than one marker that indicated the move into adulthood, with events in one sphere influencing decision-making in other spheres, in a dynamic interaction (Elias, 1978). For example, for some young men and women, beginning to be sexually active involved risks of unplanned pregnancies, which were accepted in a fatalistic fashion. For Willie, the fact that many of his friends were having babies made him realise that this was not the future that he wanted. The behaviour change that symbolised his exercise of agency so as to avoid the inevitable fate of others in becoming an unplanned father included actions in relation to finding paid work:

A couple, one had a kid, two had a kid, three had a kid. They were dropping like flies. And I was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t for me’. I was like, ye got to go and do my own thing, find myself some work.


From observation and interviews with young people, this study concludes that, as in other similar studies (inter alia, Cote and Bynner, 2008), meanings of becoming adult and markers of its achievement vary from one young person to another. Many young people experience feelings of ambivalence about leaving the certainties of childhood, even when there have been many problems, to move into an adult world with different challenges, including having to engage with people and structures beyond their immediate family, friendship and community networks.

In Pilton, as has been described, young people shared ideas about markers in behaviours and social relationships that indicate a shift to ‘mature’, adult status, though experiences varied for different people at different times.  As young people themselves conceptualised ‘becoming adult’, they made clear the interaction between ‘social markers’, such as moving into the employment market or becoming a parent, and ‘behavioural markers’, such as disengaging from street-based leisure activities and taking up adult responsibilities and interests, including moving into adult leisure spaces. In the ‘social’ context, outcomes for these individuals were highly uncertain, influenced by events beyond their control. Young people had more sense of personal agency when they discussed how ‘becoming adult’ could be marked by behaviour changes, although this also meant that valued friendships might not continue.

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Last Updated: 2 May 2018


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In 2017, Eric was awarded a PhD in Youth Studies from Birkbeck College, University of London. His thesis, ‘Young people’s transition to adulthood in Pilton, a disadvantaged neighbourhood in Edinburgh’, includes interrogation of the usefulness (or not) of concepts such as ‘resilience’ to describe young people’s transitions to adulthood in a context of disadvantage. Eric also has an MSc in Public Service Management (South Bank University, London) and an MA (Hons) in History (University of Edinburgh).

Eric has worked for more than twenty years in the voluntary and community sectors. Since 2012, he has been Director of SHAAP (Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems), a partnership pf the Medical Royal Colleges in Scotland and since 2015 he has been a Teaching Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, where he is currently Course Organiser for ‘Sociology of Health and Illness’, part of the Masters in Public Health course.