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The Emerging Adult: The Life Stage of 20-Somethings

Updated on February 18, 2017
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Catherine Giordano is a public speaker and writer known for her inspirational essays and articles.

What Does the Term “Emerging Adult” Mean?

Have you noticed that growing up is getting more and more complicated? There is now a newly recognized life stage—emerging adult—a term coined by psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, PhD, in his 2004 book, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Though the Twenties.

The Emerging Adult

Emerging adulthood is the life stage after the teenaged years, but before full adulthood.
Emerging adulthood is the life stage after the teenaged years, but before full adulthood. | Source

It used to be that we had only two life stages--children and adults.

  • We added “teenager” to cover the age group from 13 to 18 or 19. This term came into common usage in the 1950’s.

  • Not long after, we added “tweens” to cover the age group from 10 to 12--more than a child, but not yet a teenager. This may reflect the fact that puberty has been starting earlier (especially for females) or perhaps it is just a marketing term to reflect the aspirations and interests of children who yearn to be teenagers.

  • Now on the other end of the teenager years, we have emerging adults—young people aged 18 to 30 who have reached physical maturity and who are nominally adults, but they are not yet ready to take on the responsibilities traditionally associated with adulthood.

It’s an interesting phenomenon. On one end of the teenaged years we have children—tweens-- who are growing up too quickly, and on the other end we have children-–emerging adults--who are taking too long to grow up.

Of course, “growing up too quickly” and “taking too long to grow up” are just the terms used by the older generation who are perturbed about the changes in society since they were young. The young people themselves feel that they are growing up at just the right speed.

What Are the Main Differences Between Millennials vs. Earlier Generations of Young People?

The emerging adults are part of the generation sometimes called “millennials,” people born in the early 1980’s through the early 2000’s.

The millennials are taking longer to “settle down.” Emerging adults have the freedom to avoid adult responsibility because parents are willing and able to support them through these transitional years.

There are three main areas of difference.

Longer Education

Education is a much longer process. No longer do young people get a job after high school; they go on to college. Further, they don’t just need a BA or 4-year degree; now they need advanced education. In part, this is due to the greater complexity of modern life—there is more to learn. It may also be due to the faster rate of change—knowledge becomes outdated as soon as it is learned.

Delayed Marriage and Child Rearing

Marriage and child rearing are postponed. The average age of marriage in the United States in 2015 is 27 for women and 29 for men. In 1960, it was 20 for women and 22 for men. Similarly, the average age of women giving birth to their first child was about 20 to 21 in 1960, and it is now about 25 to 26.

Delayed Career Choice

Emerging adults tend to work in a number of low paying jobs as they continue their education and/or try to figure out what they want to do. It is much harder to settle on a career choice when there are so many options.

Emerging Adults Have Three Main Characteristics

Emerging adults are different from young people in the past in that they have extended education and delayed marriage and career.
Emerging adults are different from young people in the past in that they have extended education and delayed marriage and career. | Source

What Are the Five Features of Emerging Adults?

Dr. Arnett described five identifying features of emerging adults.

Identity exploration:

They are still in the process of deciding who they are and what they want out of life.

Instability:

They have frequent changes of residence—moving to go to college or to live with friends or a romantic partner.

Self-focus:

The restrictions of parents and society are less influential and young people are in a period of exploration with respect to all aspects of their life—education, career, relationships. They do not want to prematurely limit their freedom to explore.

Feeling in-between:

Not surprisingly, emerging adults do not completely feel like an adult. (A friend of mine who teaches at a major university told me that when his students use the word “adult,” they do not include themselves in that term.)

Optimism about possibilities:

Although emerging adults are still in the process of “finding-themselves,” they are optimistic about their futures. Most emerging adults believe that they will be living "better than their parents did." They expect to find well-paying and personally-fulfilling work, Further, even if their parents divorced, they believe they will find a lifelong soulmate and a happy marriage.

I am an older person and the parent of an emerging adult. I’m happy that young people today, have a “grace period” before assuming the responsibilities of adulthood, but I also sigh when I think about the harsh realities they may soon encounter. Arnett says, "If happiness is the difference between what you expect out of life and what you actually get, a lot of emerging adults are setting themselves up for unhappiness because they expect so much.”

Emerging Adults Are Searching for Their Identity

Emerging adults are searching for their identity.
Emerging adults are searching for their identity. | Source

Are 19 Year-Olds Actually Ready for Adulthood?

The emerging adult life stage may not be something new, but something that previously went unrecognized. The science of brain physiology has revealed that the brains of young people are not yet fully developed. Areas of the brain involved in impulse-control and decision making are still under-developed until about the age of 30.

(I told my son not to make any important decisions without consulting me until he was 30 years old. He laughed at me. One thing that hasn’t changed: Young people think they know it all.)

In today’s complex world, it is important to allow more time for young people to develop life skills such as planning and assessing the risk/reward potential of their actions. Young people must be able to develop their own worldview while recognizing that the perspectives of others also have validity. They need time to learn critical thinking.

If our young people are taking more time to “settle down,” it is not because they are shiftless or lazy. We need to understand that this is a valuable time of fine-tuning. They will be happier and more successful if they have been allowed to spend some time in this in-between state.

We also need to understand the stress emerging adults feel. They are unmoored. Their freedom often leaves them lonely. They are unable to form close ties because they move so often, change jobs and schools so often, and enter and end romantic relationships so often.

On top of all this, there is the pressure they feel, consciously or unconsciously, to become fully responsible adults. For instance, if you are 25 and still living with your parents, it feels a little demeaning. You want complete autonomy, but you know you are not prepared to handle it. It sets off a psychological tug-of-war within the psyche of the emerging adult.

Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties
Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties

Jeffrey Arnett explains why and how the lives of young adults have changed in the last couple of decades. This is must-reading for the parents of young adults as well as for the young people themselves.

 

What do you think of "emerging adulthood'?

Do you think people in their early 20's should be allowed more years to grow up?

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What Are the Larger Societal Reasons For Emerging Adults?

Prolonging the “growing-up” period is a necessity in today’s complex world, but it is also a luxury afforded by economical and societal conditions in the industrialized nations of the world. Child labor has been abolished, educational opportunities have been expanded, and economic conditions permit parents to financially support (or help support) their children through their twenties.

“The Pill” and the “Sexual Revolution”

The widespread use of contraception has changed the terrain in immeasurable ways. It has made sex outside of marriage a viable choice and permitted family planning for married couples. Consequently, young people can delay marriage and the responsibilities of child-rearing and focus on their personal development. The optimism of young people about their prospects for fulfilling work and happy marriages may be justified because they have delayed taking on these responsibilities until they were of an age to make well-formed and well-reasoned choices. Additionally, it has given women the option of higher education to the point where more than half of all college students are women.

Longevity

People are living longer lives. The life expectancy in the United States is 81 for women and 76 for men. Since adulthood has been extended by longer life, young people can afford to spend more time in pre-adulthood. The number of productive years will remain unchanged.

Moreover, the parents of young people are living longer and healthier lives. They can give their children the benefit of financial and emotional support for a longer period of time. Perhaps there is a psychological component here—young people might be able to feel like they are still children because their parents are still “young” (and alive).

The complexity of modern life

Not too along ago, a young person knew his path in life. A young man would marry the girl next door (or at least, his high school sweetheart) and enter the same occupation as his father. He would work for the same company in the same occupation his whole life. A young woman would marry in her late teens. If she went to college, it was more to obtain her M.R.S. than for reasons of vocation. The young couple would stay married for life.

Nowadays, young people have so many options. Emerging adults feel a lot of pressure to choose wisely. Further, there are so many choices; it is difficult to choose one. Technology is moving faster and faster rendering choices obsolete almost as soon as they are made. Occupations are becoming more specialized. For example, once most doctors were general practitioners. Now a person entering the field of medicine might have to choose from among hundreds of specialties.

The Emerging Adult Must Deal with Many Issues

The emerging adult must deal with many issues.
The emerging adult must deal with many issues. | Source

How Can Society Ease the Transition From Emerging Adult to Full Adult?

Making the transition from emerging adult to full adult is harder for some young people that for others.

People from economically disadvantaged backgrounds face more difficulties than people from well-off families. Economic need can force them into a job that curtails their education and options. They may be stuck in a less than optimal position for life.

Young people from immigrant families or ethnic minorities face more difficulties than others. Success may be dependent upon their ability to break free of the restrictions of their culture and their outsider status.

How can government, institutions, and families help young people during these difficult years? This is a question for further thought. We, as a society, must develop the programs that will help the emerging adult on his journey to full adulthood.

Jeffrey Arnett Explains Emerging Adulthood

© 2015 Catherine Giordano

I Welcome Your Comments.

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    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Peninah: Thank you for your comment. I am so glad I was able to help you with your course work. I do think it is so much harder to "emerge" for kids today as you and I both know from personal observations and our study of the subject.

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      Peninah 2 years ago

      What an insightful article! I got to this site as I was looking for an image to illustrate 'emerging' in the context of adolescents - I am taking a course in adolescent health. The contextual issues you raise here are so relevant to the health issues they face, so thank you! I have adolescents of my own that I am watching emerge so differently from how I emerged and this echoes back on many of my personal observations.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      hubsy: If a twenty-something tells me I got it right when I write about twenty-somethings, I'm going to believe it. Thanks for letting me know that you liked my hub.

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      hubsy 2 years ago

      Wow, what a great hub! As a 20-something, I really can relate! Great hub!

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Flossiey Kal: The trend concerning the age at which young people assume full adult responsibility can be different in different cultures.

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      Flossiey Kal 2 years ago

      Great however from my corner in the Uk it is the opposite. Tgey can not wait to grow have kids at 16-19 and apper to take on responsibility from a very young age..sometimes frightning...majority of these cases are on the lower end of finincial chain. Those going to university can on the other end relate to your article but are not majority.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks Flourish Anyway for your insightful comment. Young people today have more options. I wouldn't worry about lifetime earnings. With increases in longevity and health, they will have more years to work and can make up for lost time. Marriage and career can be delayed, but for women, the choice to be a mother needs to be taken early.

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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you Sylvia Leung for your great comment. It is my impression that the young people are less materialistic and more about experience. But they do need their cell phones and X-boxes.

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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Kylissa: Have you seen my hub "Live Longer by Acting Like a Kid?" My conclusions are just like the ones you mention in your comment. Thanks for your comment and continue to listen to your inner child. and it is wonderful to have friends of different ages. .

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      FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

      Very interesting! While the 20 somethings are still emerging, the risk is that they may be taking longer to discover themselves career-wise. They may be behind the curve in hitting their career potential and peak earning years which could severely impact their retirement savings long-term. Also, because there is a biological clock, they can only postpone child bearing so long (for those who plan to pursue that choice) before parenthood becomes very challenging and expensive to achieve without significant technological intervention. I believe we were "emerging adults" all along but just forced to go along with what the assigned roles were, like it or not. I don't know if this is a good thing or not.

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      Sylvia Leong 2 years ago from North Vancouver (Canada)

      Fabulous article! We don't have any children of our own, however, my husband is still partially involved in the hospitality industry which allows us to get to know lots of university-aged "emerging adults". We find these young people so enjoyable - their energy, their openness, their alternative views! It's so interesting how they could care less about cars & yet they must have the latest cell phone. Thanks Catherine for this great read!

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      Kylyssa Shay 2 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      Unfortunately, it seems that one enters the category of too old to listen to directly after emerging into adulthood.

      I see nothing wrong with extending childhood. Heck, I see nothing wrong with continuing some sort of childhood life-long by valuing and keeping alive the children inside adults, especially the children in senior citizens. What I mean by that is sometimes allowing kids to be kids no matter what age. Look at the lovely and fairly recent elderly boyish friendship that has sprung up between Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellan. It's lovely to know two boys can be silly chums at any age.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      chriswillman90: What a thoughtful comment. Millennials have a lot of advantages, but also a lot of challenges. I'm very grateful for your comment.

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      Krzysztof Willman 2 years ago from Parlin, New Jersey

      Very engaging and intriguing article about something we don't talk about as often. There's still this lazy, unproductive stereotype for 20 something's who live with their parents or have a low income job. But bottom line is that our economy, rises in education costs, the cost of living, and increasing taxes have all combined to make it nearly impossible for many to have their own lives. I'm glad you touched on these points because I realize millenials are now being viewed under a microscope in order to see what their next steps will be -- good or bad.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      I agree Joyette Fabien: Young people mature at different rates and people who do not grow up in comfortable circumstances don't have the luxury of taking the time to "emerge." This life stage is a big generalization. It has to be seen as a comparison to earlier generations. In aggregate, it is taking longer for millennials to assume the responsibilities of adults. Thank you for commenting.

    • Joyette  Fabien profile image

      Joyette Fabien 2 years ago from Dominica

      Very interesting. Yes, the changes in society have really influenced the time young people need to grow up. However, the personal circumstances of the young person might be an even bigger factor. You will find that those who did not have the luxury of ease, comfort pampering etc as they grew up mature faster and by twenty-twenty-two are well ready to take up their adult responsibilities.

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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks Hayden Johnson for your comment. It seems you are ready to emerge, but your parents are holding you back, Perhaps they are trying to hard to protect you because they want you to have it easier than they had it. Why not sit down with them and discuss their reasons with them and explain why you feel ready to assume my responsibility. You are right that young people grow up faster in some ways; but in other ways, it takes more time.

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      Hayden Johnson 2 years ago from Colorado

      I love your article. I am currently in my twenties and dealing with this problem. I am old enough to have responsibilities but still too young for certain responsibilities in my parents eyes...Its hard to say why this is because I know when my parents grew up they did not have this issue. Once they were an adult they were fully responsible, no questions asked. Things are just so different now because teens are starting to grow up faster than they use to, trying things earlier than they should, and attempting to grow up faster than normal.

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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Billybuc: When a parent dies young, it forces the children to grow up. They no longer have the luxury of "emerging." I know from the parts of life story that your lofe story that you have shared in your hubs, you suffered for it. But it was a different world back then. I think the young people will be better off for having the time to grow up a little more before taking full responsibility.

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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      pstraublie48: Emerging seniors--Now that is something I know something about (Ha Ha) I have one of those emerging adults in my house. I wish he'd emerge already. No point saying, "When I was your age..." It's a different world.

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      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      It's an interesting discussion, Catherine. I really have no opinions on it other than wishing my dad didn't die when I was twenty so I didn't have to grow up so quickly....but sometimes we just don't have other options. :)

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      Patricia Scott 2 years ago from sunny Florida

      Yes I have heard this expression. How clever it is that the phrase was coined and is now widely used. Whether or not the premise behind it is fully bought into is another thing, but it clearly is something interesting to consider and reflect on.

      I wonder if Emerging Seniors will become the next new phase of 'growing up'.

      Angels are on the way...Enjoyed reading from beginning to end ps