The Emerging Adult: The Life Stage of 20-Somethings
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
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.
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 It may also be due to the faster rate of change—knowledge becomes outdated as soon as it is learned.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
What Are the Five Features of Emerging Adults?
Dr. Arnett described five identifying features of emerging adults.
They are still in the process of deciding who they are and what they want out of life.
They have frequent changes of residence—moving to go to college or to live with friends or a romantic partner.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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
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
Questions & Answers
© 2015 Catherine Giordano