The experiences an individual has during young adulthood carry critical implications for future social and economic well-being (IOM, 2014). Scholarship within the United States tends to focus on “disconnected youth” (e.g., Fernandes-Alcantara, 2015) – often defined as individuals between 16 and 24 who are neither enrolled in school nor employed. However, research on the transition into adulthood points to increased individualization of post-high school pathways into adulthood (Shanahan, 2000) and some research on disconnected youth implies there may be varied degrees of connectedness to school or work across the transition period (e.g., Kuehn, Pergamit, & Vericker, 2011). The combination of these bodies of work gave rise to the research question for this study: Are there individual differences in the developmental trajectories of being connected to school or work during the transition into adulthood?
The sample comprised 2,027 individuals who were between the ages of 18 and 26 and participated in at least 3 Panel Study of Income Transition into Adulthood Supplement interviews between 2005 and 2015. This study utilized unconditional latent variable mixture models (LVMM), which are used to explore whether there is population heterogeneity (i.e., subgroups within a potentially heterogeneous population) related to a particular longitudinal outcome, behavior, or developmental process (Lubke & Luningham, 2017). At each biennial interview, individuals’ employment and education history data were collected using retrospective questions to gather dates of employment within the past two years and enrollment in college since high school. Those dates were used to create a monthly dichotomous connectedness indicator (1=employed or enrolled in college, 0= not employed and not in college) across the transition into adulthood (i.e., ages 18 to 26).
Based on model comparison fit statistics, examination of plotted trajectories, and subjective evaluation of usefulness and interpretability related to prior literature and theoretical work (Muthén & Muthén, 2000), a four-class LGMM with random intercept and slope factors was selected. This model suggested that individual differences in connectedness to school or work across the transition into adulthood might be described by four developmental trajectories: consistently high connectedness, intermittent connectedness, high-dipping connectedness, and low-peaking connectedness. There was considerable within-trajectory variation, indicating overlap in connectedness experiences for those assigned to different trajectories (i.e., the trajectory subgroups may not be entirely discrete).
This longitudinal study provides a more holistic view of connectedness as a process, not as an outcome. Findings from this study highlight that the timing of connections to school or work across the transition into adulthood varies. While many young people between ages 18 and 26 may be connected to school and work fairly consistently – like those following the consistently high connectedness pattern – there was considerable variation in connectedness for others. These findings highlight that it may be inadequate to examine or address connectedness to school or work as a point-in-time experience. Additional research, such as examining childhood and adolescent correlates and later outcomes associated with differences in connectedness to school or work during the transition into adulthood, is necessary to better inform policy and practice.