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Commentary 2016

Emerging Adults 

For years, youth was thought to end around age 18 or upon graduation from high school and the beginnings of careers or higher education. These years from late teens to early twenties are spent building the foundation for future wealth, occupational training, and achievements that impact the remainder of adulthood. While legally adults at age 19 in Nebraska, this time period is one of profound change and development. Exploration of love, work and world views shift and change over the course of this stage of young adulthood. In the past half century, the age of marriage and childbearing has steadily increased, allowing for the immediate years following high school to be a time of change and exploration of life paths. It is no longer expected for those in their late teens and early twenties to have already settled in to long-term, adult roles. Because of these changes in expectations some have determined the late teens and early twenties to be a distinct developmental age known as “Emerging Adulthood.”1 This commentary seeks to explore the issues and opportunities in emerging adulthood in Nebraska.

Emerging adults, especially those 18-24 years old, are at a unique point in their life characterized by relative independence from social roles and normative expectations. This age, more than any other point throughout the life course, allows for independent exploration of life’s possibilities with few outside responsibilities. There are few requirements for these young people, thereby making demographic status unpredictable and volatile. These years of development are characterized by instability, frequent transitions, and increased access to other emerging adults who are demographically different. Demographic transitions and fluctuations make it difficult to categorize emerging adults as adults. In fact, most young people at this age do not consider themselves to be adults, but rather as being in a period between adolescence and adulthood. The top criteria most young people use to consider themselves as adults are characterized by self-sufficiency and include accepting responsibility for one’s self, making independent decisions, and reaching financial independence.2 Emerging adulthood is a period when self-sufficiency has not yet been reached and many are often still reliant on parents and other family members for assistance – whether financially or for guidance. Identity exploration and formation and character traits continue to develop. It is only after these qualities are established and self-sufficiency is reached, that many make the transition from emerging adulthood to being a young adult, typically in the mid to late twenties.

The following pages present data highlighting the life experiences of our state’s emerging adults in each of Voices for Children’s data categories– population, health, education, child welfare, justice, and economic stability. By looking at the data, policies and recommendations can be developed to ensure that all Nebraska’s emerging adults are positioned to transition into successful adults.

Characteristics of emerging adults:3

Researchers have identified five characteristics of emerging adults that define their development on the path to self-sufficiency.

1. The age of instability:

Emerging adults often encounter complications on their path to independence and are therefore forced to revise their plans often changing educational plans, partners, jobs, or residences.

2. The age of identity exploration:

Emerging adults are trying out different possibilities in an attempt to figure out who they are and who they’d like to become before making the transition to stable, long-lasting commitments.

3. The self-focused age:

Emerging adults tend to delay significant adult responsibilities in an effort to exercise freedom and independence.

4. The age of feeling in between:

Emerging adults tend to feel that they have not yet met the criteria of adulthood, but have advanced beyond adolescence.

5. The age of possibilities:

Emerging adults often have a very optimistic view of their future and believe they will accomplish their dreams while overcoming past obstacles to opportunity.


There were 192,774 18-24-year-olds living in Nebraska in 2015, comprising 10.2% of the state’s population.4 Most are White, non-Hispanic (75.1%), and live in Douglas, Lancaster, or Sarpy counties (58.8%). Compared to the population as a whole, 18-24-year-old Nebraskans are more diverse and more urban with a greater portion of the population identifying as non-White and more of the population living in Nebraska’s population hubs of the Lincoln and Omaha metropolitan areas.4 This follows current trends of Nebraska moving toward being more racially diverse and urban.5 This age group is also increasingly foreign born with 7.9% being born outside the United States in 2015, compared to 6.9% in 2010.6

18-24-year-old Nebraskans by race/ethnicity (2015)4

  • 2+ Races/non-White, Hispanic (3.8%)
  • White, non-Hispanic (75.1%)
  • White, Hispanic (11.3%)
  • Black/African American (5.7%)
  • Asian or Pacific Islander (3.2%)
  • American Indian (1%)

18-24-year-old Nebraskans by rurality (2015)4

  • Small Rural Counties (6.4%)
  • Large Rural Counties (9.9%)
  • Micropolitan Counties (15.9%)
  • Other Metropolitan Counties (8.9%)
  • Big Three Counties (58.8%)


Emerging adults are more likely to partake in high-risk behaviors, view themselves as invulnerable to harm, and incorrectly gauge the level of risk associated with certain behaviors, even more so than adolescents.7 The pursuit of novel, often high risk, experiences can be done more freely among emerging adults due to greater independence from their parents and less constriction to social roles.1 This is the age group with the greatest likelihood of being uninsured. This lack of health insurance results in barriers to obtaining needed health care, having no contact with a health professional, and identifying no usual source of health care.8 Young people in this age group typically show lower rates of office-based health care utilization and higher rates of emergency room visits. The data also shows a 50% drop in the utilization of psychiatric services from adolescent years to emerging adulthood.9

Risk behaviors

Percent of Nebraska emerging adults reporting risk behavior
Currently Smokes Cigarettes 17.9%10
Overweight or Obese 46.2%10
Binge Drinking 33.4%10
Illicit Drug or Alcohol Abuse or Dependence in the Past Year 19.3%11

Access to health care

  • Percent Uninsured

12.5% of 18-24-year-old Nebraskans did not see a doctor when they needed to in the past year due to cost.10

62.5% of 18-24-year-old Nebraskans have a personal doctor.10

18-24-year-old Nebraskans health insurance by type (2015)12

  • Public Health Insurance (8.5%)
  • Private Health Insurance (81.1%)
  • Uninsured (12.4%)
Percent of Nebraska emerging adults reporting mental health issue
Ever had a form of depression 17.0%11
Had a serious mental illness in the past year 5.1%10
Had any mental illness in the past year 19.5%10
Had serious thoughts of suicide in the past year 8.3%10
Had a major depressive episode in the past year 9.5%10

Spotlight on the Affordable Care Act (ACA):

In 2009, nearly one-third of emerging adults ages 19-25 were uninsured. With the enactment of the Affordable Care Act (“ObamaCare”), insurance coverage has been expanded to these young people due to provisions allowing them to remain on their parent’s health insurance plan until age 26 or to purchase insurance directly through the Health Care Marketplace. Typically, working-age Americans get their health care coverage through an employer, meaning for many emerging adults who are in school full-time or are working in a job where health insurance is not offered, it was difficult to obtain affordable coverage. The ACA created health insurance options for emerging adults who were not previously eligible for coverage and allowed emerging adults greater flexibility to explore different career and educational paths without being tied to a job for the sake of health insurance.13 With the enactment of dependent coverage, the uninsured rate among 18-24-year-olds in Nebraska dropped by more than 50% from 2009 to 2015 from 25.5% uninsured to 12.4%, helping to lead the nation toward our lowest uninsured rate in recorded history.12 The increases in access to coverage have led to increased access to health care for young people, and has improved their health and financial security which may potentially generate long-term economic benefits.14


The period of life following the transition out of high school is a unique time where emerging adults can take advantage of the valuable window to explore a variety of career options and further their education. Skill development and education impacts their later careers, often leading to higher salaries and becoming a more skilled participant in the workforce.15 In recent years, changes in the labor-market and decreases in median wages have made it increasingly difficult for emerging adults to attain economic self-sufficiency, a key marker in transitioning to adulthood. Additionally, wage gaps based on level of education have widened, making it even more difficult for those with no more than a high school diploma to earn a self-sufficient wage.16 It is estimated that over half of new jobs will require some form of postsecondary education in the coming years.17 Because of these changes, it has never been more important to have equitable access to affordable higher education and job training. Emerging adults who are not enrolled in school or employed are missing a valuable window to invest in their human capital and begin the climb up the career ladder potentially resulting in lower wages later in life.

Nebraska average annual in-state tuition and fees for a 4-year college: $16,78519

Nebraska average annual in-state tuition and fees for a 2-year college: $6,36619

60% of Nebraska students graduate a 4-year institution with an average debt of $26,23520

18-24-year old Nebraskans college or graduate school enrollment (2015)18

  • Not Enrolled in College or Graduate School (57.7%)
  • Enrolled in College or Graduate School (42.3%)

18-24-year old Nebraskans enrolled in college or graduate school (2015)18

  • Enrolled in Public College (81.8%)
  • Enrolled in Private College (18.2%)

18-24-year-old Nebraskans educational attainment (2005 & 2015)21

  • 2005
  • 2015

18-24-year-old Nebraskans not in school and not working (2014)22

Economic Stability 

Emerging adulthood is an important time for gaining career skills. Participation in the labor force is one of the only ways to gain the skills necessary to find and keep a job, a critical skill in the transition toward financial independence and adulthood.16 In the past decade, emerging adults have faced a very difficult job market, with high unemployment severely impacting earnings.30 Emerging adults generally have a lower rate of labor force participation compared to adults due to high rates of school and college enrollment; however, the rate of those who are not participating in the labor force has grown even higher during the Great Recession. Among emerging adults, those who are enrolled in school and those who have dropped out of high school experienced the greatest decline in labor force participation. This is indicative of a lack of available jobs, especially well-paying ones, at their current skill level.31

Poverty during this age of development is also considerably higher than the rate of poverty for the rest of the population. Emerging adults from low-income families face considerably more barriers to obtaining a degree or credential with high labor market value when compared to their higher income peers. A young person’s lack of resources at this age of development may push them to take on family caregiving responsibilities. Taking on these responsibilities instead of furthering their education or exploring careers can lead to decreased earning potential later in life perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Percent of 18-24-year-old Nebraskans in poverty (2005 - 2015)32

Percent of 18-24-year-old Nebraskans in poverty by race/ethnicity (2014)33

16-19-year-old Nebraskans employment by race/ethnicity (2014)*34

  • Not in the Labor Force
  • Unemployed
  • Employed
*Asian/Pacific Islander is not available due to inadequate sample size.

20-24-year-old Nebraskans employment by race/ethnicity (2014)*34

  • Not in the Labor Force
  • Unemployed
  • Employed
*Asian/Pacific Islander is not available due to inadequate sample size.

Spotlight on DACA and LB 947

In 2012, the Obama administration instituted a new immigration policy that allows certain undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as minors to be eligible for a work permit and deferred action from deportation. These children and young adults are known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients or Dreamers. DACA recipients were brought to the U.S. as minors and did not have the financial, physical, or emotional independence to consent to this decision. For many of the over 5,000 Dreamers in our state,35 Nebraska is the only home they have ever known, and their families are already active members of the community and our economy.
The opportunity to find success and productivity in adulthood is something that we support for all young Nebraskans. Children should not be held accountable for the actions of their parents over which they had no control. In the 2016 legislative session, the Nebraska Unicameral passed LB 947 which allows these young people to qualify for professional and commercials licenses. Without access to these licenses, many young Nebraskans who completed education and training were forced to relocate to another state or discontinue their career path. LB 947 removed this barrier to success, allowing Nebraska’s Dreamers to continue the pathway toward a successful career and lifelong opportunity.

 Child Welfare

Permanent family support is an important factor in development; however, for many Nebraska adolescents who “age out” of our child welfare system each year, they transition from adolescence to emerging adulthood without the support and guidance of a family. Without connections to community or family supports, these young people are unlikely to reach their full potential. Foster youth who “age out” of the system have a greater likelihood of:

  • not finishing college by age 24,
  • not having a high school diploma,
  • not having health insurance,
  • experiencing homelessness,
  • not being employed at age 24,
  • being arrested by age 24,
  • having one or more pregnancies by age 24, and
  • receiving food stamps.23

Nebraska has put into place programs that will help system involved youth successfully transition out of the system into emerging adulthood and adulthood.

In 2015, 86 Nebraska youth were in out-of-home care on their 19th birthday, thereby “aging out” of the system.24

Connected Youth Initiative (CYI)23

The CYI is a community-based grant with the purpose of assisting emerging adults with former involvement in the child welfare or juvenile justice system in accessing needed resources including:

  • Coordinated services and resources
  • Financial literacy and asset building programing
  • Basic need services and supports
  • Input from youth

Bridge to Independence (b2i)25

The b2i program provides stable support for emerging adults as they exit foster care and transition to independent living. The program is led by the young person with an Independence Coordinator available to help advise and work through options. B2i is available to all who have aged out of the foster care system up to age 21 as long as they are in school, employed, or participating in an employment program. Resources include:

  • A dedicated Independence Coordinator
  • Health Care Coverage through Medicaid or the ACA
  • Monthly support payments

Justice and Public Safety 

Emerging adults who experience, witness, or feel threatened by violence frequently face long-term effects on physical health and mental health, and have an increased likelihood of committing an act of violence themselves.26 Typically, law-breaking increases from late childhood and peaks in the teenage years with a slow decline during emerging adulthood years. This trend does not reach pre-pubescent levels until well after the transition to young adulthood has typically taken place.27 Youth who began offending at a younger age are more likely to continue offending after their adolescent years, but by age 25, these offense rates dramatically drop off. Many young people who offend at ages 18-20 are likely to naturally desist these behaviors within few years following the offense.25

14,966 arrests of emerging adults ages 18-24 were made in Nebraska in 2015; 10.9% were for minor in possession of alcohol, a status offense.28

18-24-year-old Nebraskan arrests by age (2015)28

Spotlight on LR 514

As described above, Nebraska has a robust system of supportive services available for young people aging out of our foster care system at age 19. Conversely, youth exiting our juvenile justice system can face an abrupt transition from probation oversight, intensive supports and rehabilitative services, and even out-of-home placement to sudden independence. Without a transition plan to ease youth back into their homes and communities and to assist them in finding their footing as emerging adults, this population is particularly at risk to reoffend and face adult incarceration. Research has shown that less than 20% of formerly incarcerated youth have diplomas or GEDs, and only 30% continue to stay engaged in work or school a year after their release.29 These risk factors highlight the critical need for enhanced transition services for older youth leaving the juvenile justice system, so that they are set up for a success and a crime-free future, rather than a return to anti-social behaviors.

When the Legislature passed LB 216 in 2013 creating the Bridge to Independence (b2i) program, it required continued examination of ways to extend the program to other populations in need of similar transitional supports. In 2015, the Bridge to Independence Advisory Committee of the Children’s Commission formed a task force to examine this question and make recommendations. Focus groups were held with youth and adult stakeholders across the state, and the taskforce itself represented a set of state experts in extended foster care and/or the probation system. The taskforce found broad consensus supporting a voluntary program of extended services for young people aging out of the juvenile justice system without a stable system of family supports. The primary resulting recommendation was to open up eligibility to the current b2i program to young people aging out of the juvenile justice system who have no home to return to. This recommendation came out of the evidence that, though they may have come to the attention of our court system through a criminal act or misbehavior, there are youth lingering in placement on probation not because they themselves have failed to rehabilitate, but because they lack a home to return to and child welfare proceedings have not been initiated due to their age.

A 2016 interim study sponsored by Senator Kate Bolz of Lincoln, LR 514, provided a forum and opportunity for detailed legal research and further collaborative discussion to take place and a proposal to be developed to extend b2i eligibility to youth aging out of the juvenile justice system. The resulting proposal has essentially two criteria: a young person must be in a court-ordered out-of-home placement as they age out of probation on their 19th birthday, and prior to aging out, the court must hold a hearing and make a finding that such placement is necessary because returning to the home would be “contrary to the welfare” of the child. Stakeholders hope that by providing a system of supports to young people who would otherwise be set adrift after system involvement, Nebraska can ensure their safe transition to a productive and healthy adulthood– benefitting our state as a whole.

 Transitioning into adulthood

Emerging adulthood is an important time for identity exploration and building the foundation for the remainder of adult life, but critics have suggested that this “in-between” stage of possibilities is a privilege only available to some, specifically white, middle class young people.35 Indeed, little research has been done to examine the role of family income and race/ethnicity on the ability to delay adulthood and participate in a period of extended transition and exploration, and there is no data on whether the period of emerging adulthood applies across race/ethnicity or income.36

Despite age, marriage and starting a family are often predictors of transitioning to adulthood. The growing delay in these life changing events in the past half-century has allowed for emerging adulthood to exist, but those who begin their families at a young age often do not get the benefits of a lengthy transition. Over the past decade, births to mothers 18-24-years-old have dramatically reduced; this coupled with similar trends in adolescent births provides evidence of a delay in childbearing and greater ability to experience emerging adulthood.36

The transition from emerging adulthood to adulthood is impacted by the young person’s perception, and certain life circumstances can make this transition occur at a younger age. For example, low-income young people typically make the transition at an earlier age.35 Race and ethnicity is inextricably linked to family income and poverty, therefore it is likely that fewer people of color get the benefit of the extended period of growth that occurs during emerging adulthood. In the prior pages, we have seen disparities in poverty, unemployment, idleness, involvement in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, and health care coverage for young people of color. Without equitable access to opportunity, these young people are more likely to transition to adulthood and financial independence before they have had the chance to develop the tools and skills necessary for lifetime success.

Births to 18-24-year-old Nebraska females (2005 - 2015)37

Conclusion and recommendations 

During the late teens and early twenties, young people experience a period of frequent change. This time is characterized by explorations of relationships, shifting world views and value systems, and career and work possibilities. The lessons learned during these years lead to decisions with lifelong ramifications. This transitional period is an important time to weigh future life courses, while outside and familial responsibilities are relatively low. The developmental milestones reached during these years set young people on the pathway to becoming healthy and productive adults. This time is also a period of vulnerability and risk as young people begin to disconnect from familial supports, experience changes in residence, school, and work, and frequently engage in risky behaviors. Young people’s access to opportunity and a support system, or lack thereof, coupled with how systemic policies impact their lives can lead to significant, lifelong impacts on well-being. In order to ensure all Nebraska’s young people are able to experience this developmental milestone and they all are suited to successfully transition to full adulthood, Voices for Children in Nebraska recommends:

1. Preserving features of the ACA relevant to emerging adults.

Access to affordable insurance and health care is paramount to a person’s health and wellness. Provisions allowing young people to remain on parental insurance up to age 26 and purchase affordable insurance through the marketplace have significantly reduced uninsurance for emerging adults. Young people have the highest uninsured rates of any age group. Nearly half of uninsured young adults would qualify for Medicaid under full expansion. Expanding Medicaid would address the remaining gap in health insurance access for this population.

2. Expanding services to those who age out of the state’s systems to an older age and include the juvenile justice population in these services.

The Bridge to Independence Program and the Connected Youth Initiative are important programs ensuring youth who reach the age of majority while living in out-of-home care or having other system involvement have the supports needed to successfully transition to independence. State support should be levied to expand these initiatives to other populations, such as those aging out of placements in our juvenile justice systems. Emerging adulthood is shown to continue for many through the mid-twenties, and these services could also be expanded through the mid-20s.

3. Expanding supports in higher education to low-income students and students of color.

Today’s workforce requires workers to have more training and education than ever before. The best predictor of financial security is level of education. Postsecondary training and education must be accessible for all that want it and supports need to be in place to ensure young people who experience greater obstacles to educational and economic growth have the tools needed to be successful.

4. Eliminating disparities in outcomes for young people of color.

Every young person has the right to experience emerging adulthood and successfully transition to adulthood with equitable access to opportunity. Systems must proactively develop prevention and intervention strategies that promote equity while mitigating implicit and explicit racial bias.


1Arnett, Jeffrey J., Emerging Adulthood: A theory of development from the late teen through the twenties, American Psychologist, 2000.
2Arnett, Jeffrey J. Young People’s Conceptions of the Transition to Adulthood, Youth & Society, 1997.
3Arnett, Jeffrey, J., Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood, 2004.
4U.S. Census Bureau, 2015 Population Estimates, Table PEPAGESEX.
5Center for Public Affairs Research, UNO, State and Local Population Trends Presentation, 2013.
6U.S. Census Bureau, 2015 American Community Survey 1-year estimates, Table S0501.
7Millstein, Susan G., Halpern-Felsher, Bonnie L., Judgments about Risk and Perceived Invulnerability in Adolescents and Young Adults, Journal of Research on Adolescence, 2002.
8Callahan, S. Todd, Cooper, William, O., Uninsurance and Health Care Access Among Young Adults in the United States, Pediatrics, 2005.
9Committee on Improving the Health, Safety, and Well-Being of Young Adults, Investing in the Health and Well-Being of Young Adults, 2015.
10Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 2014.
11Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, National Survey of Drug Use and Health, 2013-2014.
12U.S. Census Bureau, 2015 American Community Survey 1-year estimates, Table B27001-B27003.
13Center for American Progress, How the Affordable Care Act Helps Young Adults, 2013.
14The Commonwealth Fund, The Affordable Care Act and the U.S. Economy: A five-year perspective, 2016.
15Annie E. Casey Foundation, Youth and Work, Restoring Teen and Young Adults’ Connections to Opportunity, 2012.
16Danzinger, Sheldon, Ratner, David, Labor Market Outcomes and the Transition to Adulthood, Future of Children, 2010.
17The Institute for Higher Education Policy, A Portrait of Low-Income Young Adults in Education, 2010.
18U.S. Census Bureau, 2015 American Community Survey 1-year estimates, Table S1401., Cost and Affordability.
20The Institute for College Access and Success, Project on Student Debt, 2015.
21U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 1-year estimates, Table B15001.
22U.S. Census Bureau, 2014 American Community Survey 5-year estimates, Public Use Microdata Sample.
23Nebraska Children and Families Foundation, Connected Youth Initiative.
24Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, Children and Family Services, 2015.
25Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, Bridge to Independence Program.
26Forum on Child and Family Statistics, America’s Young Adults, 2014.
27National Institute of Justice, From Juvenile Delinquency to Young Adult Offending, 2014.
28Nebraska Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, 2015.
29Farn, A., Adams, J. Education and Interagency Collaboration, A lifeline for justice involved youth, Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy, 2016.
30Pew Research Center, Young, Unemployed, and Optimistic, 2012.
30Brookings, Worrying declines in teen and young adult employment, 2015.
31U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 1-year estimates, Table B17001.
32U.S. Census Bureau, 2014 American Community Survey 5-year estimates, Tables B17001B-I.
33U.S. Census Bureau, 2014 American Community Survey 5-year estimates, Tables B23001, B23002B-I.
34U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Form I-821D Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, Fiscal Year 2016, 3rd Quarter.
35Syed, Moin, Mitchell, Lauren, L., Race, Ethnicity, and Emerging Adulthood: Retrospect and Prospects, Emerging Adulthood, 2013.
36Arnett, Jeffrey, J., Tanner, Jennifer, L., Themes and Variation in Emerging Adulthood across Social Classes, 2011.
37Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, Vital Statistics.