Many of the developmental tasks of early adulthood involve becoming part of the adult world and gaining independence. Young adults sometimes complain that they are not treated with respect-especially if they are put in positions of authority over older workers. Consequently, young adults may emphasize their age to gain credibility from those who are even slightly younger. “You’re only 23? I’m 27!” a young adult might exclaim.
The focus of early adulthood is often on the future. Many aspects of life are on hold while people go to school, go to work, and prepare for a brighter future. There may be a belief that the hurried life now lived will improve ‘as soon as I finish school’ or ‘as soon as I get promoted’ or ‘as soon as the children get a little older.’ As a result, time may seem to pass rather quickly. The day consists of meeting many demands that these tasks bring. The incentive for working so hard is that it will all result in better future.
What is required to do well in today’s economy? Among emerging adults, current concerns about acquiring education, is the relationship between higher education and the workplace. Bok (2005), American educator and Harvard University President, calls for a closer alignment between the goals of educators and the demands of the economy. Many companies outsource much of their work, not only to save costs, but to find workers with the skills they need. Colleges and universities, he argues, need to promote global awareness, critical thinking skills, the ability to communicate, moral reasoning, and responsibility in their students (Bok, 2006). Regional accrediting agencies and state organizations provide similar guidelines for educators. Workers need skills in listening, reading, writing, speaking, global awareness, critical thinking, civility, and computer literacy-all skills that enhance success in the workplace. The past U. S. Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings challenged colleges and universities to demonstrate their effectiveness in providing these skills to students and to work toward increasing America’s competitiveness in the global economy (U. S. Department of Education, 2006).
A quality education is more than a credential. Being able to communicate and work well with others is crucial for success. There is some evidence to suggest that most workers who lose their jobs do so because of an inability to work with others, not because they do not know how to do their jobs (Cascio, in Berger 2005). Writing, reading, being able to work with a diverse work team, and having the social skills required to be successful in a career and in society are qualities that go beyond merely earning a credential to compete for a job. Employers must select employees who are not only degreed, but who will be successful in the work environment. Hopefully, students gain these skills as they pursue their degrees.
To what extent does the theory of emerging adulthood apply internationally?
The answer to this question depends greatly on what part of the world is considered. Demographers make a distinction between the developing countries that comprise the majority of the world’s population and economically developed countries including the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. On a population level, most of the human population resides in developing countries, which have much lower median incomes (if any); much lower median educational attainment (again, if any, due to lack of access to these kinds of resources); and much higher incidence of illness, disease, and early death. This puts the concept of "emerging adulthood" into perspective that it is a place of rather exclusive privilege to be able to explore within the construct of emerging adulthood in lots of ways.
Worth noting, there is substantial variability in how emerging adulthood is experienced across developed countries. Europe is the region where emerging adulthood is longest and most leisurely. The median ages for entering marriage and parenthood are near age 30 in most European countries (Lally & Valentine-French, 2017). Europe today is the location of the most affluent, generous, and egalitarian societies in the world—in fact, in human history (Arnett, 2007). Governments pay for tertiary education, assist young people in finding jobs, and provide unemployment benefits for those who cannot find work, for the most part (with some but low restrictions). In northern Europe, many governments also provide housing support. Emerging adults in European societies have the option to make the most of these advantages, gradually making their way to adulthood during their twenties while often enjoying travel and leisure with friends.
The lives of Asian emerging adults in developed countries such as Japan and South Korea are in some ways similar to the lives of emerging adults in Europe and in some ways strikingly different. Like European emerging adults, Asian emerging adults tend to enter marriage and parenthood around age 30 (Arnett, 2011). Like European emerging adults, Asian emerging adults in Japan and South Korea enjoy the benefits of living in affluent societies with social welfare systems that provide support for them in making the transition to adulthood—for example, free university education and substantial unemployment benefits.
However, in other ways, the experience of emerging adulthood in Asian developed countries is markedly different than in Europe. Europe has a long history of individualism, and today’s emerging adults carry that legacy with them in their focus on self-development and leisure during emerging adulthood. In contrast, Asian cultures have a shared cultural history emphasizing collectivism and family obligations. Although Asian cultures have become more individualistic in recent decades due to globalization, the legacy of collectivism persists in the lives of emerging adults. They pursue identity explorations and self-development during emerging adulthood, like their American and European counterparts, but within narrower boundaries set by their sense of obligations to others, especially their parents/caregivers (Phinney & Baldelomar, 2011). For example, in their views of the most important criteria for becoming an adult, emerging adults in the United States and Europe consistently rank financial independence among the most important markers of adulthood. In contrast, emerging adults with an Asian cultural background especially emphasize becoming capable of supporting parents financially as among the most important criteria (Arnett, 2003; Nelson, Badger, & Wu, 2004). This sense of family obligation may curtail their identity explorations in emerging adulthood to some extent, as they pay more heed to their parents/ caregivers wishes about what they should study, what job they should take, and where they should live than emerging adults do in the West (Lally & Valentine-French, 2017).
Another notable contrast between Western and Asian emerging adults is in their sexuality. In the West, premarital sex is largely considered normative by the late teens, more than a decade before most people enter marriage. In the United States and Canada, and in northern and eastern Europe, living together with an intimate partner is also normative; most people have at least one cohabiting partnership before marriage (if they choose to marry...many do not). In southern Europe, cohabiting is often still considered taboo, but premarital sex is tolerated in emerging adulthood. In contrast, both premarital sex and cohabitation remain unapproved of (on a society level) throughout Asia. Even dating is often discouraged until the mid to late twenties, when it would be a prelude to a serious relationship leading to marriage. In cross-cultural comparisons, about three fourths of emerging adults in the United States and Europe report having had premarital sexual relations by age 20, versus less than one fifth in Japan and South Korea (Hatfield and Rapson, 2006).
Emerging adulthood is well established as a normative life stage in the developed countries described so far, but it is still growing for developing countries. Demographically, in developing countries as in developed countries, the median ages for entering marriage and parenthood have been rising in recent decades, and an increasing proportion of young people have obtained post-secondary education. Nevertheless, currently it is only a minority of young people in developing countries who experience anything resembling emerging adulthood. The majority of the population still marries around age 20 and has long finished education by the late teens.
For young people in developing countries, emerging adulthood exists only for the wealthier segment of society, mainly the urban middle class, whereas the rural and urban poor—the majority of the population—have no emerging adulthood and may even have no adolescence because they enter adult-like work at an early age and also begin marriage and parenthood relatively early. However, as globalization proceeds, and economic development along with it, the proportion of young people who experience emerging adulthood is predicted to increase as the middle class expands in those countries. By the end of the 21st century, emerging adulthood is likely to be normative worldwide.