Immature or More Complex? FCLC Discusses Emerging Adulthood in the 21st Century

Is This Generation of 20-Somethings Stuck Somewhere Between Adolescence and Adulthood?


Published: September 23, 2010

Gone are the days when growing up meant moving out, getting a job, getting married and starting a family. Instead, our generation has defined growing up as a time to find where your interests lie, where you want to live and, possibly, an excuse to shack up with the ’rents for a couple of years so you can pay for your post-college travel plans. The 20-somethings of today may seem like a transient, aimless bunch, never knowing what they want and refusing to jump from milestone to milestone in a straight and progressive way as their parents did.

Some believe that the 20-somethings of today are less mature than the 20-somethings of past generations. (Anna Smyczynski/The Observer)

But in reality, there may be more to this conundrum than ambivalence and the inability to commit. Maybe there should be a new stage of life entered into the books to describe this trend. The New York Times dubs this stage “emerging adulthood,” the period when you are not in adolescence but are markedly different from an adult.

“I just don’t think we can even generalize in the way these questions do,” Bethany Lange, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’12, said. “For instance, I have a friend who doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life, is undeclared and may take time off from school to travel. Nonetheless, she is one of the most passionate, focused, mature, responsible people I know, and to classify her as an ‘emerging adult’ is just insulting.”

The reason for this different maturation process may be influenced in many ways by our country today. In many cases, one degree is simply not enough to find a job in this competitive economy, so this generation may hold off on purchasing a home to continue their education. This extra schooling also leads to more loans, which can curb the ability to buy a home. And when it comes to starting a family, one may not do this until he or she achieves financial stability, which in our day and age takes proportionately longer than it did 50 years ago. At the same time, this quality of “roaming” may not be unique to this generation.

“I don’t think you can say this is a development of our times. Read “War and Peace;” half the characters are trying to find themselves. They either do not have a vocation or have only a nominal sense of responsibility for themselves or others, live in a frivolous and often irresponsible manner and travel to gain a better understanding of themselves,” Lange added.

And while changes in society have influenced the way in which we grow up, the psychology of the young adult may also provide some answers to this question. In terms of adulthood, there are traditionally three stages which are recognized, including young (20 to 45), middle (45 to 65) and old (all the rest). The problem with this model is that 20-year-olds are clumped with the 45-year-olds, even though the two may be strikingly different.

A study done by psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, in which he interviewed a large sample of youth, showed that in “emerging adulthood,” 20-somethings, on average, were more self-focused, less certain about the future and, at the same time, more optimistic than those at other stages of adulthood. Furthermore, the brain continues developing after age 20, especially in the areas involved in emotional control and higher-order cognitive functioning and, in fact, has not done its most “dramatic structural change” until age 25. This would explain why the way in which someone views the future changes from age 20 to age 30 .

Aside from brain functioning and societal structure, emerging adults are also influenced  by societal expectations.

In terms of maturing quickly and following the job-house-kids rule, some students believe it varies based on the individual. “I don’t think there’s a societal pressure,” Chelsea Mclaughlin, FCLC ’12, said.

And while some are kids who are still finding their way, others are on a one-track road.

“While there are definitely many people who fall into the emerging adulthood category, I feel as though a lot of graduates have a clear after-college plan and know what they want to do. Emerging adulthood is an interesting concept, but I feel as though the reality may be that the ‘generation’ of self-finders referenced may be smaller than we’d like to think,” Alex Mitchell, FCLC ’12, said.

Today’s youth doesn’t expect to marry until their late 20s, have kids until their 30s or have a rewarding career as young as their parents did. Also, parents don’t expect their kids to grow up as quickly as they had to.

“I’m not sure that this tendency to be an ‘emerging adult’ that you recognize in your generation is as exclusive to your generation as you suggest,” Frederick Wertz, professor of psychology, said. “I’m 59 years old and I still feel like a kid, and I believe many of my peers, who are a part of my generation, feel the same way. Remember, we are children of the 1960s. We grew up watching Peter Pan. Many of us looked at ‘adulthood’ as being like our ‘square’ parents who had come of age in what we viewed as more socially conservative times. Many of us ‘tuned in, turned on and dropped out,’ though many eventually found some occupational and societal niche. However, we also never wanted to grow old, and many of us never have in our own self-images. The one thing we didn’t do, though, is to go back and live with our parents! And now, as ‘adults’ we are very different from what our parents were.”

It’s hard to say whether this trend is positive or negative. While in the past adults marched towards their societal fates like good soldiers, the machine of expectations seems to have a few cogs. Each generation changes from the one before and while the boomers marched, protested and “hippied” their way into the future, this generation is exploring their options, taking their time, and creating their own version of “the grown up.” Maybe in this case it’s the self-aware individual on the path to figuring out what he really wants out of life and knowing what’s important. Or maybe the “true grownup” is the one who realizes that they don’t have it all figured out.