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Are Emerging Adults Self-Involved or Dispossessed?

The problematic narratives of hyper-individualism in coming of age.

Key points

  • Values of hyper-individualism allow us to pin systematic dispossession onto emerging adults as individual failings rather than structural ones.
  • Emerging adulthood is when the accumulation of dispossession comes to fruition.
  • Time to end problematic narratives of "selfish" emerging adults and instead focus on providing the basic needs emerging adults deserve to thrive.

Decades ago, becoming an adult meant meeting “traditional” markers of finishing school, leaving home, entering the workforce, getting married, and having children (Settersten & Ray, 2010). For today’s emerging adults, the path is not as clear-cut.

The most common markers of adulthood listed by emerging adults today are becoming financially independent and responsible for oneself (Arnett, 2006), a clear departure from the young adults of generations past. These independent markers are listed by emerging adults from all walks of life across race/ethnicities, socioeconomic status, and genders (Arnett, 2003). It’s no surprise being independent and responsible for oneself are front of mind when talking about adulthood, as they echo from the broader messages these young people encounter in our society.

Susan Flores/Pexels
Source: Susan Flores/Pexels

Dubbed the “me me me generation” for eschewing the markers of adulthood that their parents and grandparents adhered to (Stein, 2013), emerging adults are getting married, having children, leaving home, and entering the workforce, much later in life than prior generations, if at all.

Officials and popular media are quick to portray today’s emerging adults as self-involved and lacking any major sense of responsibility to themselves or others (Stein, 2013). But perhaps these realities reflect more about our disinvestments in emerging adults as a society than they do about the young people themselves.

I have interviewed countless emerging adults in my work as they navigate the transition to adulthood. While the overwhelming majority name these traditional individualistic markers of adulthood, I have also heard narrations of what is lost as young people emerge into adulthood.

As I sat listening in a community college classroom in NYC, I remember a young woman who described what becoming an adult meant:

When you move out of your parents’ house and your supporting yourself. You know, you are taking on real life as an individual by yourself. You know, you don’t have that village anymore kinda supporting you and sheltering you from the blows. You know, you kinda take it and really get to know what life is for what it is and just that. No more, you know, mommy to run to when things are or you are upset, or when things get tough. That’s the development into an adult.

What I heard from this young woman was echoed by countless more young people, becoming an adult didn’t mean standing on one’s own, but instead standing all alone.

As this young woman narrated this feeling of loss, of not having “that village” to support and shelter her, it struck me that emerging adults today face circumstances, unlike prior generations. I was curious about how these narratives reflected not only emerging adults’ personal experiences but our society as a whole.

Source: Barikive/Pexels

In many ways, the current social infrastructure in the U.S. has overlooked emerging adults and dispossessed them of resources that support their basic needs. As young people enter emerging adulthood, many take on significant debt in the form of student loans.

Emerging adults make up this country's largest proportion of student loans (Education Data Initiative, 2022). This debt is disproportionately distributed across the intersections of race and gender, with the U.S. Census indicating that Black women are the most likely of any gender group to hold student loans (U.S. Census, 2021).

Racial and gendered pay inequity has steadily grown, leaving women of color making pennies on the dollar for their male counterparts as they emerge into the workforce and across their lifetimes (Barroso & Brown, 2021). These financial constraints have significantly impacted emerging adults’ abilities to own a home, with the Federal Reserve estimating that student loan debts play a significant role in this decline in homeownership over the past two decades.

Emerging adults are also the highest uninsured group, leaving many without access to quality healthcare or healthcare at all (U.S. Census, 2020). The major milestone of starting a family is often shaped by the financial constraints of limited or no paid parental leave and exorbitant childcare costs. Taken together, the basic needs of financial stability, health, and the ability to imagine themselves in the future tense have been steadily eroded for emerging adults today.

Emerging adulthood presents a developmental moment of profound cultural mismatch: that is, young people are expected to emerge as independent adults, but we give them few, if any, resources to do so. Emerging adulthood is when the accumulation of dispossession comes to fruition.

The cumulative effect of systemic issues of racism, oppression, marginalization, and disadvantage become stark “individual” differences when, in reality, they are symptoms of larger systemic problems. This personalizing of structural issues is on full display with the current debate about student loan forgiveness which has reinvigorated conversations regarding individual choices and systemic dispossession (Archie, 2022).

Forgiveness Essential Reads
Oleksandr Pidvalnyi/Pexels
Source: Oleksandr Pidvalnyi/Pexels

For too long, these narratives of rugged hyper-individualism have defined emerging into adulthood. This narrative allows us to pin systematic dispossession onto emerging adults as individual failings rather than structural ones. This can lead emerging adults to personalize the structural shortcomings of our society, as we expect emerging adults to overcome these structural barriers with an individual agency to survive.

Perhaps it is time we lay to rest these problematic narratives of selfish emerging adults and instead focus on providing the basic needs emerging adults deserve to thrive.


Archie, A. (2022, September 13). Almost half of U.S. governors ask Joe Biden to cut student loan forgiveness plan. NPR.…

Arnett, J. J. (2003). Conceptions of the transition to adulthood among emerging adults in American ethnic groups. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 2003, 63–76.

Arnett, J. J. (2006). Emerging adulthood: Understanding the new way of coming of age. In J. J. Arnett & J. T. Tanner (Eds.), Emerging adults in America: Coming of age in the 21st century (pp. 3–19). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Barroso, A. & Brown, A. (2021). Gender pay gap in US held steady in 2020. Retrieved from

Education Data Initiative. (2022). Student Loan Debt Statistics.

Federal Reserve (2019, January). Consumer and Community Context: Volume 1 (1).…

Settersten, R. A., & Ray, B. (2011). Not quite adults. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Stein, J. (2013, May 20). The me me me generation: Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents. Why they’ll save us all. Time Magazine.

US Census (2020, October 26). Adults Age 26 Had Highest Uninsured Rate Among All Ages, Followed By 27-Year-Olds.…

US Census (2021, August 18). COVID-19 Adds to Economic Hardship of Those Most Likely to Have Student Loans.…

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