Emerging Adulthood

No longer adolescents, but not yet fully adult, today’s older teens and 20-somethings are charting a new path to maturity – quite different from the one taken by previous generations. What’s behind this new life stage, and what does it mean for parents of today’s teens and tweens?

By Sandra Whitehead

Emerging AdultaKatie Tripeau has spent much of her 20s exploring. After graduating from college, she found a job in advertising. She worked for about a year, long enough to afford a trip to Australia. At age 23, she spent six months traveling in Southeast Asia with friends who, like her, “weren’t ready to start their lives, so to speak.”

When she returned, Tripeau “temped around” to earn money. Now, at age 27, she’s back in her parents’ home while she studies to be an elementary school teacher.

“I didn’t feel any pressure to settle in a career,” she says. “It was a time to experience and think about what I want to do.”

A generation ago, young people like Tripeau finished college, started careers, moved out of their parents’ home and, in many cases, got married in their early 20s. These days, all of this is happening five to 10 years later as young people take longer to finish their schooling, are ambivalent about what they want to do with their lives and are not driven to start a career or a family. Many of them return to their parents’ homes sometime during their 20s to regroup, save money and ponder their next steps.

These are not merely the characteristics of this generation, social scientists say, but a new stage of development that we can expect our children and our children’s children to experience. Just as the teen years began taking on their own identity a half century ago, “emerging adulthood” has, in the past few decades, become a distinct period of development, according to psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, who first identified it. Arnett, a research associate professor of human development at the University of Maryland and editor of The Journal of Adolescent Research, says emerging adulthood is a period of exploration, instability, possibility, self-focus and a sustained sense of being in limbo.

The fact that children are taking a longer route to adulthood has important implications for parents, beyond the fact that we can expect to be actively parenting them for longer. Just as we had to learn the ropes of raising young children, we’ll be better parents if we can anticipate and understand the emotional needs and behaviors of our children as they become emerging adults. And, experts say, today’s parents of teens and tweens have an opportunity to help their children develop skills that will be useful when they become emerging adults.

Old Milestones

Sociologists have always defined the transition to adulthood in terms of distinct events: finishing education, entering full-time work, marriage and parenthood. Emerging adulthood, asserts Arnett, has been created particularly by the postponement of marriage and parenthood. In fact, couples today are typically marrying five years later in life than they did 30 years ago.

A key reason for this change was the invention of birth control, combined with less stringent sexual mores after the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, says Arnett. Today, most young people have a series of sexual relationships before getting married.

Another factor is the increase in years many young people now devote to pursuing higher education, Arnett says. About two-thirds of high school graduates now enter college, the highest proportion in American history. In addition, it now takes many students five years to earn an undergraduate degree, and there are rising expectations to earn advanced degrees.

“It takes longer now to be self-sufficient. It takes more education now than in the past to get a good job,” says Arnett. This pushes milestones, such as marriage and career, back to the mid- to late-20s and beyond.

Yet the most important factor delaying the transition to full adulthood is a change of attitude, Arnett says. While young people of previous generations were eager to take on adult roles and settle down, young people today are not. They look around and see adults who are overworked, divorced and generally stressed out – it doesn’t look like much fun. They see marriage, home and children as “perils to be avoided,” he says. These responsibilities represent “a closing of doors – the end of independence, the end of spontaneity, the end of a sense of wide-open possibilities.”

“They don’t want to settle. They have high expectations. They want meaningful jobs and a spouse who will be a soul mate,” Arnett continues. In fact, he adds, the extent of these expectations can make them “delusionally optimistic.”

New Definitions

Instead of using the traditional markers of adulthood, emerging adults have found new ways of defining what it means to be an adult, he says. For them, the benchmarks are less tangible and more psychological, such as being able to:

• accept responsibility for one’s actions;

• make independent decisions; and

• become financially independent.

The good news for parents, Arnett points out, is that, despite the media’s tendency to paint them as the Peter Pan generation, today’s emerging adults do want to grow up, and it’s unlikely that they’ll still be living in your basement when they’re 30. Almost all of them, he says, eventually succeed in getting a decent job.

“They are taking their time because they don’t see a reason to rush,” Arnett explains. “They realize that once you take on typical adult responsibilities, you become fully adult; and that’s how you stay for the rest of your life. You can never get back the exceptional freedom of emerging adulthood.”

So, Is This a Good Thing?

Not surprisingly, researchers disagree about whether this new life stage is a positive or negative development. Arnett describes it as “the best opportunity for self-exploration.” Unencumbered by parents’ rules or the responsibilities of full adulthood, he says, emerging adults are free to explore possibilities in a variety of areas, especially love and work.

But James Côté, a professor of sociology at the University of Western Ontario and author of Arrested Development, says emerging adults don’t really have a choice; they have been put on hold by economic and social factors that keep some of them dependent on their parents well into their 20s. Real wages for most people have been dropping since the 1970s, and most professions have become highly competitive. This, combined with rampant downsizing, means that many Americans never experience occupational security, especially during their first years in the workforce. In other words, people in their 20s do not have the economic means to be financially independent, he says.

At the same time, Côté also sees a lot of social disorganization. “Parents have not given them the guidance and structure they needed growing up,” he says of today’s young adults. They’ve gone through adolescence without the parental support that previous generations had. With two parents working, children and teens often come home to neighborhoods where there are no adults around. This leaves teens with peers, rather than parents, as role models. Consequently, when it comes time to make the transition into adulthood, there is an absence of norms about what that should look like, says Côté.

Furthermore, he says, “baby boomers have left choices wide open for their children, not wanting to unduly influence them. For example, they decide to let them choose a religion when they grow up.” Yet values and beliefs are important to identity formation, he adds. “If you’re brought up without a strong sense of values or belief systems, it is difficult to make choices. It is better to give them something to rebel against than nothing.”

The bottom line, Côté concludes, is that “a significant number of people in their 20s are having real difficulties. It is most difficult for those with the least resources – economic, psychological and intellectual.”

Emerging adults themselves talk about the stress and anxiety they experience, calling it a “quarter-life crisis.” Musician John Mayer, 26, sings about it in his song “Why Georgia.” Twenty-something authors Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner write about it. In their book Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties, they describe it as a time full of self-doubt and anxiety. The media has sold young people the idea that if they play their cards right, they can have it all. Then, suddenly they realize they are not in the career of their dreams, they’re constantly worried about money, and they feel alone, Robbins and Wilner write.

Renowned pediatrician and learning expert Mel Levine is more blunt. He says he is “stunned by the plight of individuals – far too many – who seem unprepared for the crossover from education to work.” In his new book, Ready or Not, Here Life Comes, Levine describes what he calls “an epidemic of third-decade unreadiness.”

Today’s 20-somethings “seem clueless about careers, don’t really know themselves and seriously lack the insights and abilities necessary for the transition into the workplace.”

Specifically, he says, they lack:

• an inner sense of direction,
• the ability to interpret the world around them,
• organizational and decision-making skills, and
• communication and alliance-building skills.

We need “to reconsider the manner in which we are educating and rearing children,” Levine says. He is convinced that our culture and our educational practices are “harming children,” stunting their mental growth and leaving them unready to launch themselves into adulthood.

In Levine’s view, kids today are too:

• Indulged
– Having been raised with a full slate of scheduled activities, many of today’s 20-year-olds “are having trouble making their own significant decisions,” Levine says. This, coupled with a steady diet of computer and video game entertainment during their formative years and parents who were ever eager to please, has left them ambushed by the demands of adulthood, he says.

• Pushed to be well-rounded
– Levine casts a critical eye at what he calls “the dubious, but much-revered, trait of well-roundedness.” Pressured by the competition for college admission, many parents push their children to excel on all fronts – academically, athletically, politically and socially. The result, he says, is young people whose “very versatility makes it hard for them to commit to the deep and narrow grooves of adult work life.”

• Focused on rote-learning – “We overemphasize a host of facts and skills that will be of little or no use in the workplace,” Levine contends. Instead, he suggests, schools should emphasize skills that could make or break start-up adults: the ability to think critically, to brainstorm, to monitor and refine your own performance, to communicate convincingly, and to plan and preview work.



Arrested Adulthood: The Changing Nature of Maturity and Identity, by James E. Côté, New York University Press, 2000. Examines the new definitions of adulthood and describes how people in their 20s are handling this uncertain time.

Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties, by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Ph.D., Oxford University Press, 2004. The first to identify the phenomenon of “emerging adulthood,” Arnett asserts that it’s here to stay and not necessarily a negative development.

The Myth of Maturity, by Teri Apter, Ph.D., W.W. Norton, 2002. Argues that older teens still need parental support and guidance as they approach decisions about adulthood.

Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties,
by Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner, Penguin Putnam, 2001. Explores the pressures and uncertainty that 20-somethings face. See also the authors’ 2004 book, Conquering Your Quarterlife Crisis (Perigee Books).

Ready or Not, Here Life Comes, by Mel Levine, M.D., Simon & Schuster, 2005. Identifies a serious lack of work-life readiness among young people and defines the tools young adults need to succeed.


Search Institute – This independent, nonprofit organization promotes healthy children, youth and communities. Its Web site includes "40 Developmental Assets" researchers have determined that young people need to become caring, responsible adults.

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