Emerging Adulthood is defined as the period of life from about age 18 through age 25, during which young people are exploring the possibilities of their lives and beginning to define themselves as adults, rather than teenagers. This article defines Emerging Adulthood, and explains why it is a relevant concept in educational psychology. It cites authors using emerging adulthood as a framework to study mental and physical health, drug and alcohol use, and identity and personality formation. It also cites references assessing emerging adulthood in a range of cultures.
Educational Psychology > Emerging Adulthood Keywords Adolescence; Adulthood; Autonomy; Emerging Adulthood; Exploration; Identity Exploration; Personality Formation; Prolonged Adolescence; Psychosocial Moratorium; Risk-taking Behavior; Self-Focused; Transition
What is Emerging Adulthood?
Emerging Adulthood is defined as the period of life from about age 18 through age 25, during which young people are exploring the possibilities of their lives and beginning to define themselves as adults, rather than teenagers. Recently, due to the onset of industrialization, increased education across groups, and changing ideas about life possibilities for women, this period of increasing autonomy has grown longer and come to be more clearly defined. First jobs have been delayed by education; first marriages by the career-goals of men and women, and by changing acceptance of sexual behavior outside marriage; and first childbearing has been delayed by all of those factors, as well as by progress in medical science increasing the chance of success of later-life childbearing.
Whitehead (2007) explains that
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 (par. 5).
According to Arnett (2004), in interviews and surveys throughout the U.S., people consistently cite the following criteria for reaching adulthood:
• Accept responsibility for self.
• Make independent decisions.
• Become financially independent (p. 15).
These goals are not reached suddenly, however. They are gained incrementally and possibly separately from each other. Therefore, says Arnett, "although emerging adults begin to feel adult by the time they reach age 18 or 19, they do not feel completely adult until years later, some time in their mid- to late twenties" (2004, p. 15). This period in between is emerging adulthood.
This extension of the maturing process that precedes "settling down" is how Arnett (2004) describes emerging adulthood. He explains that although extended time for education, changes in sexual behavior (such as increasing acceptance of premarital sex) and the broadening of options for women outside the home have contributed greatly to the development of this phenomenon, it may be something else as well:
There has been a profound change in how young people view the meaning and value of becoming an adult and entering the adult roles of
spouse and parent. Adulthood and its obligations offer security and stability, but they also represent a closing of doors-the end of independence, the end of spontaneity, the end of a sense of wide-open possibilities" (2004, p. 7).
Arnett identifies five very specific elements of the period of emerging adulthood:
• It is the age of identity explorations, of trying out various possibilities, especially in love and work.
• It is the age of instability.
• It is the most self-focused age of life.
• It is the age of feeling in-between, in transition, neither adolescent nor adult.
• It is the age of possibilities, when hopes flourish, when people have an unparalleled opportunity to transform their lives (2004, p. 8).
A New Idea?
The phenomenon may be relatively new in the U.S., arising from cultural changes in recent decades. Arnett (2004) explains that,
As recently as 1970, the typical 21-year-old was married or about to be married, caring for a newborn child or expecting one soon, done with education or about to be done, and settled into a long-term job or the role of full-time mother. Young people of that time grew up quickly and made serious enduring choices about their lives at a relatively early age. Today, the life of a typical 21-year-old could hardly be more different. Marriage is at least five years off, often more. Ditto parenthood.
Education may last several more years, through an extended undergraduate program-the "four-year degree" in five, six, or more-and perhaps graduate or professional school. Job changes are frequent, as young people look for work that will not only pay well but will also be personally fulfilling (p. 3).
Emerging adulthood must also be considered within the context in which it occurs. For example, urban youth are likely to experience more extended periods of emerging adulthood than rural youth; likewise, youth who are economically comfortable and come from relatively stable backgrounds can afford longer transition periods.
Again, according to Arnett (2004)
Economic development makes possible the period of independent identity exploration that is at the heart of emerging adulthood. As societies become more affluent, they are more likely to grant young people the opportunity for the extended moratorium of emerging adulthood, because their need for young people's labor is less urgent (p. 24).
Various studies (Arias & Hernandez, 2007; Buhl & Lanz, 2007; Macek et al, 2007) have been done to compare emerging adulthood in different countries or areas. The process may also vary by location (urban or rural) and by country.
A Phenomenon Across Cultures
Buhl and Lanz (2007) examined studies across five countries in Europe to support the hypothesis that emerging adulthood is a viable concept in Europe as well as North America. They report that traditional symbols or markers of adulthood have changed over time in those countries, and that there are different pathways to adulthood, but that starting work, and engaging in romantic partnerships influence the timing of 'emergence.' They also examine the impact of this timing on identity formation. For example, they suggest that the timing of emerging adulthood may vary across European countries, and vary from American schedules:
There is some evidence to suggest that a different time frame should be applied in Europe because biographical transitions such as parenthood or the entrance into work life tend to occur at a later age there than in the United States. Because of a large heterogeneity within Europe, we also expect differences within European countries regarding how emerging adults perceive themselves and how emerging adults experience the several domains (education, work, and family) within which they make their life choices (p. 441).
Buhl and Lanz (2007) determined that although adults had agreed that reaching adulthood seemed to be delayed, and that emerging adults acknowledged they were not quite in adulthood, there were variations across countries and across Europe. However, there were commonalities as well, and identity development seemed tied to elements of emerging adulthood. For example, Finnish researchers Fadjukoff, Kokko and Pulkkinen (2007) reviewed longitudinal studies and found that:
Five external markers of adulthood as well as self-perceived adulthood at age 27 explained identity achievement at ages 27, 36, and 42 … Earlier transition to adulthood in family life anticipated higher identity achievement in adulthood. However, later transition to adulthood in working life … was associated with higher identity achievement. Both components correlated with the higher level and thus the length of education. Self-perceived adulthood was positively associated with identity achievement in women but was unrelated to the age of achieving external markers of adulthood (Abstract).
Identity Achievement is a developmental stage described by Erik Erikson during which teens or adults determine who they are and what they are going to do with their lives.
Engaging in romantic relationships (or cohabiting or marrying) played different roles in defining and accelerating emerging adulthood, depending on the culture. For example, in Italy, marriage often initiated a move from a parents home, while in Scandinavian countries, youth had tended to experiment with a range of living arrangements outside the home before leaving permanently and/or marrying (Fadjukoff, Kokko & Pulkkinen, 2007).
Arias and Hernandez (2007) compared 720 young adults (ages 16 to 34) from Mexico and Spain, across a range of educational levels, to determine whether emerging adulthood might apply as a concept in those countries. They review various terms that have been used to describe this period of development, including late adolescence, youth, young adulthood, and transition to adulthood, and discuss why those may not be as apt as emerging adulthood. They also explain that policies affecting youth tend to standardize programs and stages by age, while an individual's actual developmental progress may be less linear-and more autonomous and individual than can be reflected in any one concept. They favor the term emerging adulthood since it focuses on the transitional nature of the phase, and the examination of the individual's role within a greater context.
Further, Arias and Hernandez (2007) suggest that the developmental period will vary by culture, and note that different cultures emphasize different aspects of adulthood (p. 479): "whereas an American sample gave more importance to financial, legal, and chronological criteria for the transition, Spaniards underlined psychological aspects-emotional and sexual criteria" (p. 479).
They describe a "Mediterranean pattern of transition: longer stay in parental home, increasing rate of enrollment in higher education, delayed entrance into workforce, and older marriage age" (2007, p.480).
In their study, Arias and Hernandez (2007) found that students generally found this to be a period of "freedom, independence, and possibilities," and that "Mexicans tend to be more resolute in their expectations and view of the future [than Spaniards]" (p. 500). They discuss at length the question of generalizing results, and the variance in culture and economic and other contexts that must be considered when assessing emerging adulthood. They also note that not all students in this age range have access to education, although education (or access to education) is an essential factor to consider in studying emerging adulthood.
The Value of Understanding Emerging Adulthood
Whitehead (2007) reports that "not surprisingly," other researchers question the value of this life stage. Arnett characterizes it as a period of freedom and exploration, but Whitehead describes the perspective of James Côté, author of Arrested Development, who claims youth are forced into this extended transitional stage by stagnating economic and social factors-they...
(The entire section is 5145 words.)