Thoughts about “Emerging Adulthood” as a New Developmental Phase

My 21-year-old daughter Emma alerted me and her mom last week about this New York Times article, “What is it about 20-Somethings?” by Robin Henig. Emma had heard about it from her brother Eric’s girlfriend Sarah (another 20-something), who apparently has seen it in the New York Times. Emma said in her email to her mom and me…

Not sure if either of you caught Sarah posting a link to this on Facebook. It’s a long article but its well worth the read, absolutely along the lines of your philosophies around youth, and undoubtedly a great subject for a new blog piece!

Emma’s words gave the article a positive spin, and I had the article in my queue to read when my 30-something friend Emily emailed my yesterday to say…

I’m curious to know what you think about this article and the case for “emerging adulthood.” Let me know.

I can’t remember when I got a heads up from two unrelated sources to look at a piece in the media.

I finally read it and I’m a bit overwhelmed by its length (~7700 words), the different areas it touches on, and all the cultural assumptions (some called out and others not) that form the piece’s context. Since Emma and Emily had suggested I blog about it, I felt like I needed to wrestle it to the ground and parse it. During the course of my initial read I seemed to have various buttons pushed having to do with adultism and the generational tussle perhaps between Baby-boomers and Millenials, since the author and most of the key sources seemed to be Boomers themselves.

Parsing it down, it basically represents Henig’s documenting the work of Jeffrey Arnet, a psychology professor at Clark University in Worchester Massachusetts who is proposing a new human developmental phase (from adolescence to about age 25) that he calls “emerging adulthood”, a new developmental phase not unlike the creation of the idea of adolescence…

What is happening now is analogous to what happened a century ago, when social and economic changes helped create adolescence — a stage we take for granted but one that had to be recognized by psychologists, accepted by society and accommodated by institutions that served the young. Similar changes at the turn of the 21st century have laid the groundwork for another new stage, Arnett says, between the age of 18 and the late 20s.

Maybe I’m overreacting, but I think the defining of adolescence and the institutions and conventional wisdom that have emerged from that definition represent a mixed bag for human beings ages 13 through 19. Yes it was a plus to appreciate the developmental changes and issues, including hormones, that people that age go through. But it seems we as a culture have come to mostly disrespect and ridicule adolescents for the “raging” of those hormones and a general incapacity to think about anything meaningful beyond the direction of their endocrine system.

Supposedly the acceptance of the concept of “adolescence” led to the creation of junior high school (now middle school), a halfway house of sorts between elementary and high school. I for one hated junior high, though I had been okay in elementary school and made my way through high school fairly well. With some notable exceptions, most youth I know have had a similar negative experience with this institution created specially to cater to youth in this unique developmental period.

So given that, I approach Arnet’s idea of “emerging adulthood” with some trepidation, hoping this is not headed towards some diminution of the full adult status of people over 18 through their twenties. It seems sometimes that only the people that are not defined as a developmental stage that get to make the rules about everyone else’s disabilities. Enough said… just confessing my biases.

According to article author Henig…

During the period he calls emerging adulthood, Arnett says that young men and women are more self-focused than at any other time of life, less certain about the future and yet also more optimistic, no matter what their economic background. This is where the “sense of possibilities” comes in, he says; they have not yet tempered their idealistic visions of what awaits.

Conventionally, full “adulthood” has been measured by finishing schooling (including college), getting a career job, getting married, buying a house and having children. Arnett is proposing his new developmental phase to try and explain why that appears to be happening later in people’s lives than it used to.

Henig refers to conclusions drawn from neuroscience research in the 1990s by the National Institute of Mental Health…

This new understanding comes largely from a longitudinal study of brain development sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health, which started following nearly 5,000 children at ages 3 to 16 (the average age at enrollment was about 10). The scientists found the children’s brains were not fully mature until at least 25.

I have to confess that I am concerned that this may be an instance of “scientism” (the inappropriate application of scientific principles), a scientific explanation for something that may be more of a cultural than a physiological phenomenon. Remember that in the 19th Century the medical establishment discovered/invented a disease called “hysteria” that debilitated well-to-do women but somehow did not afflict their working-class counterparts. Maybe this is just a younger generation coming up with a solution to new facts on the ground, including the Great Recession and a jobless recovery.

But I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of my own kids and their young adult comrades who are reacting positively to this “emerging adulthood” concept. I think they feel acknowledged in the difficult times they are going through. I’m sure many of them are feeling pressure (external or even internal) to move along in their lives toward those conventional milestones. Acknowledgement that they are in a unique developmental period may be giving them some needed room to breathe.

Looking back on this period in my own life (from age 18 into my late 20’s) I was certainly unsure though optimistic about my future, while not being focused on getting married, buying a house or raising kids. I can’t really say I was particularly self-focused during those years, since I spent much of my late 20s as a paid community organizer working at essentially minimum wage. (See my piece, “Once More in the Company of Women”.) It wasn’t until I was 28 that I got married and until I was 30 that my partner Sally and I had our first child.

But whether this approach to my life during this period was based on a physiological imperative of brain development or just what seemed like a pragmatic adaptation to circumstances I can’t really ascertain. I would certainly be comfortable with the latter as an explanation.

Again, I think our culture may be obsessed with scientific explanations for things that might be better explained as a person adapting to facts on the ground versus cultural assumptions reflected in conventional wisdom. I think about the rising trend in medicating kids for ADD and ADHD, particularly to help them function better in classroom settings. My partner Sally and I did that for a year with our son Eric, diagnosed by his doctor’s with ADD. (See my piece, “Prescription for Education”.) We came to see that the classroom was not an appropriate learning venue for our son, and had him homeschool instead, which ended the ADD issues.

Still maybe suffering from the assembly-line one-size-fits-all mentality of the Industrial Revolution, we may not be fully acknowledging that their may now be many life paths that young adults can choose to take in a very complex and sophisticated contemporary society. And that the amazingly adaptable human animal is endlessly able to adjust to new sets of circumstances in the ever evolving adventure of human life on Earth.

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