We're Not Immature, We're "Emerging Adults"S

One psychologist thinks twentysomethings who are marrying, procreating, and starting careers later than their parents are inhabiting a new life stage called "emerging adulthood." But do today's young people really need a special term to define them?

In the Times Magazine, Robin Marantz Henig lays out psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett's theory of a new phase of life arising in response to changing times, the way adolescence arose as a distinct period in children's lives a hundred years ago. Henig writes,

Just as adolescence has its particular psychological profile, Arnett says, so does emerging adulthood: identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between and a rather poetic characteristic he calls "a sense of possibilities." A few of these, especially identity exploration, are part of adolescence too, but they take on new depth and urgency in the 20s. The stakes are higher when people are approaching the age when options tend to close off and lifelong commitments must be made. Arnett calls it "the age 30 deadline."

Many people in their 20s can probably relate to that description — especially the part about "feeling in-between." Henig notes that 60% of the young people Arnett studied "told him they felt like both grown-ups and not-quite-grown-ups." And for those of us in our late twenties, that "age 30 deadline" does loom — even if it is completely arbitrary and externally imposed. But many other experts doubt that "emerging adulthood" is really a new stage — for one thing, it may be restricted to young people in developed countries who have a family financial support necessary to pursue the stage's "possibilities." And it may be less important to codify life's "stages" than it is to accept that people may want different things.

Near the beginning of her piece, Henig writes that "sociologists traditionally define the 'transition to adulthood' as marked by five milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child." But the last two really shouldn't be requirements for anyone to consider themselves grown-up, and the first three are becoming more and more uncertain as secure long-term employment becomes a thing of the past. Maybe what we need is not to define a new phase of life but to accept that life doesn't really have concrete phases.

I'm in the age group Arnett studies, and I know people my age who are married and job-hunting, financially independent and single, living at home and in a serious relationship, and pregnant and still in school. All these people probably have, as Arnett's subjects did, moments when they feel grown-up and moments when they don't. I suspect that this ambivalence won't entirely go away even when we pass the "age 30 deadline." What's more, I think our parents' generation felt it too, and may continue to feel it in some ways. I suspect that an ambivalence toward growing up has always existed, and will always exist — perhaps changing social and economic conditions have just made it extra-visible today. And maybe that's a good thing, because maybe it will help us all acknowledge that growing up looks different for everyone.

What Is It About 20-Somethings? [NYT Magazine]

Image via NYT Magazine