Traditionally, the five milestones of adulthood have been completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and starting a family. As this week’s New York Times Magazine discusses, fewer and fewer men and women are meeting these milestones by 30 years of age:

Why is this happening? Well, multiple reasons. And although some are consequences of the decisions we make, others are the result of factors beyond our control. For example, there is greater cultural acceptance of individual choice regarding the milestones of development, and our increased longevity can mean we spend more time in some stages. Yet other factors include greater perceived pressure to attend college alongside less government financial support of higher education, fewer entry-level positions available, and/or costs of living that soar while wages stagnate.

Regardless of the reasons though, this means that either more and more young people are lingering in adolescence and taking a deferment on adulthood, or there is a new “emerging adulthood” stage of the lifespan in which the milestones of adulthood are met at different rates, if at all. Yet in order for a period of time to be a stage of the lifespan, it must be universal. And “emerging adulthood” isn’t.

For example, postponing work to explore one’s identity is a luxury that the working poor cannot afford. And adolescents with parents who don’t hold university degrees may not be privy to knowledge on how to succeed in college and/or a career in a professional field. So some would rather devote themselves to one or more of the milestones of adulthood as soon as they can, even if the choices they make are not a good fit, rather than navigate alone.

Yet even teens from highly educated families may not be inclined to explore their identity; they would prefer to commit to the milestones of adulthood without delay, perhaps at least the career milestone. Therefore, although “emerging adulthood” is certainly more frequent in recent years, it isn't universal.

So it seems as if more young people in the current generation are experiencing a delayed onset of adulthood, as compared to prior generations. As a result, identity, the developmental task of adolescence, is less and less likely to be resolved during adolescence.

This developmental delay may or may not be problematic; it can be both exhilarating and unnerving. There is more freedom to explore one’s various possible selves -- but then there is more pressure to use that freedom wisely. That is, the more well-informed we are, the less time we may have to act on these commitments.

Alas, keep in mind that regardless of how many, or how few, grains of sand remain in the hourglass of our lives, a “sense of possibilities” is always possible. 

About the Author

Kristine Anthis, Ph.D.

Kristine Anthis, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Southern Connecticut State University. She is the author of Lifespan Development, Sage Publications.

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