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Grown Up So Young

News & Features | September 21, 2010

by Michael Goetzman

Where adolescence dropped us off, “emerging adulthood” wants to pick us up. But is this such a good thing?

For a few years now, it’s been open season on Generation Y—also known as the Millenials, the echo boomers, or Generation Me. Potentially terrific band names, these monikers have come to connote less-than-terrific qualities. We’ve been portrayed by employers, professors and earnestly concerned psychologists as entitled bellyachers spoiled by parents who have over-nurtured our egos, teachers who have granted undeserved A’s and coaches who have awarded trophies to any gawky one of us who showed up. Hara Estroff Marano, the editor of Psychology Today, has even gone so far as to call us a “nation of wimps.” So, before we affirm our place as the aimless bubble-kids of recorded history, it’s about time we too-coddled narcissists do what we apparently do so well: talk about ourselves. If we don’t, our baby boomer predecessors may secure a legacy of ignominy for us all.

They, our parental boomers, would know a thing about that legacy too. In 1970, The American Scholar published a piece that declared “a new stage of life” for the time between adolescence and young adulthood. Then, the oldest members of the baby boom generation—who are the parents of today’s 20-somethings—were 24. Young people of the day “can’t seem to ‘settle down,’ ” wrote the Yale psychologist Kenneth Keniston. He heralded it the new stage in the human lifespan and called it “youth.”

Keniston’s theory of “youth,” sounds a lot like Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s “emerging adulthood” Psychology professor at Clark University, Arnett has devoted the past decade of his life arguing in favor of making “emerging adulthood” a distinct developmental stage that, like adolescence before it, has it’s own particular psychological profile: identity exploration, instability, self-focus, and an optimism in the face of uncertainty that Arnett calls “a sense of possibilities.”

In his book Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties, Arnett posits that changes at the turn of the 21st century have paved the way for another new stage between the age of 18 and the late 20s. Among the cultural shifts that contribute to “emerging adulthood” are demands for more education to survive in an information-based economy; fewer entry-level jobs even after all that schooling; and young people feeling less rushed to start a family because of the general acceptance of premarital sex, cohabitation and birth control. These cultural changes have caused Millennials to postpone or even neglect what were once the traditional milestones of adulthood—finishing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having children.

Last month, seizing on the “emerging adulthood” zeitgeist, The New York Times published a smattering of Generation Me-related articles, brandishing titles like “The Why-Worry Generation” and “The Slow, Winding Path to Adulthood” that culminated in a lengthy piece by Robin Marantz Henig entitled “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” In it, she describes a trend of “young people taking longer to reach adulthood”:

“It’s a development that predates the current economic doldrums, and no one knows yet what the impact will be. … The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain untethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary (and often grueling) Teach for America jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life.”

It’s likely no college student escapes the scope of Henig’s description. Each of us has struggled with the pressures and uncertainty of a looming but persistently elusive adulthood. We’re well aware of the drawbacks of our continued moratorium on maturity and it’s attendant obligations; and we’re worried that in endlessly negotiating this space between youth and adulthood, we may eventually miss our opportunity to finally take root and grow.

But it’s important to keep in mind that “emerging adulthood” is, at most, a phenomenon of the developed world and, more likely, one experienced by the exclusive group of college-educated 18 to 29 year-olds like ourselves.

Richard Lerner, Bergstrom Chair in Applied Developmental Science here at Tufts University, argues that to qualify as a life stage, “emerging adulthood” must be both universal and essential to a person’s development. “The core idea of classical stage theory is that all people — underscore ‘all’ — pass through a series of qualitatively different periods in an invariant and universal sequence in stages that can’t be skipped or reordered,” he told The New York Times.

In an interview with me, he elaborated: “Emerging adulthood is a phase in life that applies to some young people living in some social, economic and culture circumstances.” Though a close friend and colleague of Arnett’s, Lerner doesn’t endorse the theory, arguing that his friend has ignored some of the basic tenets of developmental psychology. “If you don’t develop a skill at the right stage, you’ll be working the rest of your life to develop it when you should be moving on,” he said. “The rest of your development will be unfavorably altered.”

Ultimately, Lerner believes that “emerging adulthood” will soon pass as Keniston’s “youth” did before it. “It’s theoretical problems and the fact that it’s so over-generalized will eventually lead to it’s fading in importance. There’s not any evidence that the claims Jeff have asserted have any validity. Without that evidence, it’s going to just disappear.”

Nevertheless, Lerner doesn’t deny that “emerging adulthood” is a very important concept for those young people it does apply to. “Any concept that calls attention to the fact that we need to take better care of a sub-component of our population is a useful concept. I wouldn’t want, because of the theoretical limitations of [Arnett’s] concept, to say that we shouldn’t pay attention to college students. That would include my own children!”

Though it’s unlikely that emerging adulthood will be donned a new life stage, we can still benefit from Arnett’s observations about our generation. Instead of allowing his theory to validate the hardships that come with adulthood as we’re used to excusing, to some extent, the tantrums of a toddler or the melodrama of a high-schooler, we should understand that, right now, we’re going through important steps of setting boundaries, exploring, forming our identities. And although we’ve been accused of meandering, shirking the family life, it seems Arnett’s positive branding of this phase—not the entitled “extended adolescence” but the more positive, forward-looking “emerging adulthood”—does something new. He may not be right about it’s universality, but there’s certainly truth to his insight about us. And if he’s right about us, then it’s not that we’re a bunch of restless egocentrics of brooding mien, nor is it as simple as being victims of a bad economy; we’re going through a necessary phase of development that will help us take on the grown-up responsibilities coming down the pike.

We, emerging adults, may be off-putting to a worried 40-something with their head in The New York Times, but we’re not maladapted. On the contrary, if Arnett’s studies have shown us anything, it’s that we have an almost inexhaustible well of self-regard and refuse to have our futures defined by the limitations of our era with a resilience that all parents, educators and pop psychologists should view as proof of a successful upbringing.

But perhaps this has less to do with our parents than, as some longtime observers of our generation have suggested, of growing up in an era of almost unrelenting ambient anxiety: school years spent in the shadow of Columbine, the 9/11 terror attacks and, lately, widespread job losses. The chronic unease has simply raised our generation’s tolerance for stress, leaving it uniquely well equipped to deal with uncertainty.