Emerging Adulthood: New Stage of Development or an Excuse for Slacking?
No wonder I’m not rich and famous. Apparently I skipped a crucial stage of human development. On the day the dean of my master’s program handed me my diploma, my father handed me both my student loan and my car loan coupon books and informed me that now that I was an adult it was time to get a job and pay off my own debts. Where was Jeffrey Jensen Arnett when I needed him on that June day in 1978?
He could have told my father that I was not, in fact, an adult after all. I was merely an “emerging adult” and therefore not required to settle down with a job or a mate or with loans to pay. He would have explained to Dad that I had more important work to do. I needed to explore my identity and ponder the wide array of options available to me. I needed to travel or volunteer or take an unpaid internship. I needed to engage in any activity I could imagine that would forestall the beginning of adult life. If only I had taken that necessary self-focused time to which I was entitled, perhaps I would have emerged with a clearer picture of who I wanted to be, what I wanted to accomplish, and how I could best achieve my goals. If only.
Arnett is a psychology professor at Clark University whose work was the subject of a recent New York Times Magazine cover story. He is spearheading a movement among scholars in psychology and sociology that is geared toward creating a new stage of human development. He has labeled this new stage “emerging adulthood,” and it is going to be sandwiched between adolescence and adulthood. Its members are in their twenties. If these young people are the chickens and emerging adulthood is the egg in which they are safe and protected until they are ready to hatch into adults, then in the great “which came first” debate, the chickens definitely win.
They’re called boomerang children, their m.o. is called failure to launch, and they’re everywhere. We all know them. Many of us have raised them. According to Arnett, their behavior predates the economic crisis, but I believe they’ve grown in number as the job outlook has become increasingly bleak. Emerging adults choose from a wide variety of lifestyle options, all of which are carefully designed to postpone the onset of adulthood. Society has made it easy for them to do this. Entry level jobs are scarce. The wide acceptance of premarital sex has made postponement of marriage a welcome option, as has birth control and cohabitation. Assisted reproductive technology makes it possible to delay parenthood well into one’s thirties or even forties. The impact of emerging adulthood on a society that has been built upon the orderly progression of one generation growing up, getting jobs, starting families, and retiring on pensions supported by the next generation of adults is yet to be felt. What happens when that cycle is thrown out of whack?
A century ago psychologists made a strong case for the creation of a new stage of human development which we now take for granted. Acceptance of adolescence as a distinct phase of development required accommodation by the government, our education system, social services, and the law. Sweeping change is likely to occur should emerging adulthood gain the same level of acceptance. Is emerging adulthood going to be a breakthrough discovery in the field of psychology or is it just a fancy term for self-indulgence?
My question is, aren’t we all unfinished? God knows I still struggle with choices. I continue to evaluate my options in both my personal and professional life. And no one pays my bills while I do it. Well, actually my husband does these days, but no one pays for him to plumb his inner self and believe me, he plumbs. I’m 55…past my child rearing years, but not yet a senior citizen. Is someone going to name a phase after me? Emerging old age? It seems to me that emerging adulthood is a luxury, paid for by the parents of the emerging adults. Travel is expensive. Someone has to pay the rent for young people who volunteer or participate in unpaid internships.
Arnett insists that low-income twenty-somethings also pass through this phase of development, but I submit that they pass through it differently from their higher income peers. They may have to hold down jobs to support themselves while they pursue more education or engage in unpaid work experiences, and that sounds very adult to me.
I recently (ten minutes ago) conducted an unscientific survey from my desk chair. I thought about all my friends’ twenty-something children and what they are up to these days. Roughly half have graduated from college and have found responsible jobs and/or lifetime mates. This group includes my oldest son who, at 28, has been married for three years, owns a home, and has been building a successful career in the entertainment industry. The other half travel, play in rock bands that don’t make money, or otherwise engage in nontraditional “timeout” activities. This includes my middle son, who plans to ride out the commercial real estate crisis on the waves off the coast of Costa Rica. He will be supporting himself with the money he earned waiting on tables when the market went bust. Neither of them depends on parental financial support. Are they both emerging adults? Is one lifestyle choice less adult than the other? Who gets to decide?
Adolescence, at least in industrialized countries, is a universal experience. Most all adolescents in the modern world are in high school. The vast majority are supported by their parents. They suffer the same insecurities, experience the same changes to their bodies, and collectively begin to be more influenced by peers than parents. They want to dress the same way as everyone they know, engage in the same activities, and spout the same slang. Adolescence is all about wanting to fit in. Twenty-somethings cannot be similarly categorized. Their job is to find their own identities, and they are all over the cultural map.
Why label them? I’m not opposed to taking a year or two off to debrief after high school or college, provided it doesn’t cut into a parent’s retirement plans. But giving an entire decade of life a name that condones avoidance of responsibility seems ridiculous to me. Or maybe I’m just jealous.
photo by Google Images
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