The idea of "emerging adulthood" is a somewhat new concept. Historically, the period of the lifespan just after adolescence was called "early adulthood" and spanned from approximately age 18 (the end of adolescence) all the way until age 40 to 45 (beginning of middle adulthood). More recently, developmentalists have divided this age period into two separate stages: Emerging adulthood (think 18 to 25ish) followed by early adulthood (think 26ish to 45). Although these age periods differ in their physical, cognitive, and social development, overall the age period from age 18 to age 45 is a time of peak physical capabilities and the emergence of more mature cognitive development, financial independence, and intimate relationships.
Emerging adulthood is found mainly in "developed" countries, where most young people obtain tertiary education (any type of education pursued beyond the high school level) and median ages of entering marriage and parenthood (if pursued) are around 30. There are variations in emerging adulthood within developed countries. It lasts longest in Europe, and in Asian developed countries, the self-focused freedom of emerging adulthood is balanced by obligations to parents/caregivers and family and views of sexuality. In developing countries, although today emerging adulthood exists mostly among the middle-class and the more elite, it can be expected to grow in the 21st century as these countries become more affluent.
According to Rankin and Kenyon (2008), historically the process of becoming an adult was more clearly marked by rites of passage. For many individuals, partnering and becoming a parent/caregiver were considered entry into adulthood. However, these role transitions are no longer considered as the important markers of adulthood (Arnett, 2001). Economic and social changes have resulted in an increase in young adults attending college (Rankin & Kenyon, 2008) and a delay in marriage, if at all (compared to previous generations) and having children. Consequently, financial independence and accepting responsibility for oneself are important markers of adulthood in Western culture across age (Arnett, 2001) and culturally diverse groups (Arnett, 2004).
Figure 8.2.1: Many are delaying - or passing - on the rites of passage that once signified becoming an adult. (Unsplash license; Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash)
Emerging adulthood is the period between the late teens and early twenties; ages 18-25, although some researchers have included up to age 29 in the definition (Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood, 2016). Jeffrey Arnett (2000) argues that emerging adulthood is neither adolescence nor is it young adulthood. Individuals in this age period have left behind the relative dependency of childhood and adolescence, but have not yet taken on the full responsibilities of adulthood. “Emerging adulthood is a time of life when many different directions remain possible, when little about the future is decided for certain, when the scope of independent exploration of life’s possibilities is greater for most people than it will be at any other period of the life course” (Arnett, 2000).
Emerging adulthood has been proposed as a new life stage between adolescence and young adulthood, lasting roughly from ages 18 to 25. Arnett has identified five characteristics of emerging adulthood that distinguishes it from adolescence and young adulthood (Arnett, 2006). These are:
It is the age of identity exploration. Even Erik Erikson commented on a trend during the 20th century of a “prolonged adolescence” in industrialized societies. Today, most identity development occurs during the late teens and early twenties rather than adolescence. It is during emerging adulthood that people are exploring their career choices and ideas about intimate relationships, setting the foundation for adulthood.
Arnett also described this time period as the age of instability (Arnett, 2000; Arnett, 2006). Exploration generates uncertainty and emerging adults change jobs, relationships, and residences more frequently than other age groups.
This is also the age of self-focus. Being self-focused is not the same as being “self-centered. ” Adolescents are more self-centered than emerging adults. Arnett reports that in his research, he found emerging adults to be very considerate of the feelings of others, especially their parents/caregivers. Nonetheless, emerging adults focus more on themselves, as they realize that they have few obligations to others and that this is the time where they can do what they want with their life.
This is also the age of feeling in- between. When asked if they feel like adults, more 18 to 25 year-olds answer “yes and no” than do teens or adults over the age of 25 (Arnett, 2001). They no longer feel as dependent as they did as teenagers. Yet, they may still be financially dependent on their parents/caregivers to some degree, and they have not completely attained some of the indicators of adulthood, such as finishing their education, obtaining a satisfying full-time job, being in a committed relationship, or being responsible for others. It is not surprising that Arnett found that 60% of 18 to 25 year-olds felt that in some ways they were adults, but in some ways they were not (Arnett, 2001).
Emerging adulthood is the age of possibilities. It is a time period of optimism as more 18 to 25 year-olds feel that they will someday get to where they want to be in life. Arnett (2000, 2006) suggests that this optimism is because these dreams have yet to be tested. For example, it is easier to believe that you will eventually find your soul mate when you have yet to have had a serious relationship. It may also be a chance to change directions, for those whose lives, up to this point, have been difficult. The experiences of children and teens are influenced by the choices and decisions of their parents/caregivers. If the parents/caregivers are dysfunctional, there is little a child can do about it. In emerging adulthood, people can move out and move on. They have the chance to transform their lives and move away from unhealthy environments. Even those whose lives were happier and more fulfilling as children, now have the opportunity in emerging adulthood to become independent and make decisions about the direction they would like their life to take.
The theory of emerging adulthood proposes that a new life stage has arisen between adolescence and young adulthood over the past half-century in industrialized countries. Fifty years ago, most young people in these countries had entered stable adult roles in love and work by their late teens or early twenties. Relatively few people pursued education or training beyond secondary school, and, consequently, most young male identified individuals were full-time workers by the end of their teens. Relatively few female identified individuals worked in occupations outside the home, and the median marriage age for women in the United States and in most other industrialized countries in 1960 was around 20 (Arnett & Taber, 1994; Douglass, 2005). The median marriage age for men was around 22, and married couples usually had their first child about one year after their wedding day. All told, for most young people half a century ago, their teenage adolescence led quickly and directly to stable adult roles in love and work by their late teens or early twenties. These roles would form the structure of their adult lives for decades to come.
Now all that has changed. A higher proportion of young people than ever before—about 70% in the United States—pursue education and training beyond high school (National Center for Education Statistics, 2012). The early twenties are not a time of entering stable adult work but a time of immense job instability: In the United States, the average number of job changes from ages 20 to 29 is seven. The average age of a first marriage, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (2017): for women in 2017 was 27.4 years. For men, it's slightly older at 29.5 years. Consequently, a new stage of the life span, emerging adulthood, has been created, lasting from the late teens through the mid-twenties, roughly ages 18 to 25.