Who Is an "Adult?"
The path from adolescence into adulthood.
Posted Mar 03, 2010
Welcome to the first installment of Becoming Adult. This series is about 18- to 29-year-olds and the paths they take from adolescence into adulthood. This is the theme of my work as an applied developmental psychologist. Since my years as an undergrad working with Susan Whitbourne on studies of college students growing up, I have been intrigued by the lack of understanding that we have about the critical years when we lay the foundation of our adult lives. So much happens during these years. This is when the roads taken and the roads not taken diverge and begin to have an impact on the way we live until we die.
We, as a society, have begun to take seriously the impact we can have on the lives of newborns and children in those first few days, months, and years of life. I equate the transition to adulthood with those years. I often tell my students, "The first years of life are critical in terms of preparing you for early childhood, for school, and for the way you will experience adolescence. Similarly, the first years of adulthood, when you become the driver, navigating adult life for the very first time, are the very first steps of adulthood and they make a significant contribution to where you will go and how you will do."
My goal with this first blog is to introduce you to the academic debate that is currently before us. Attention has converged on the need to define adulthood before we learn how to help adolescents and 20-somethings establish a solid base from which they can take off on successful pathways. Subsequent posts will discuss specific and personal issues experienced during the transition to adulthood. I look forward to your comments.
Who is an "adult"?
Inside the walls of academia, we have been privy to a resurrected controversy-what does it mean to be an adult? The most recent incantation of this debate appeared in the mid-1990s when Jeffrey Arnett took interest in this question and started talking to 20-somethings about their experiences.
Interestingly, his survey research, and that of many others told us that very few young and very few old consider the things that adults "do"—having a job, buying a home, getting married, or having a child-indicators of adulthood. Rather, it became apparent that becoming adult was about, well, becoming. Across cultures, Arnett's findings have been replicated. Accordingly, an adult is someone who accepts responsibility, makes independent decisions, and becomes financially independent.
A sweet ‘ole ivory tower controversy is "on."
In one corner, we have Arnett. He interviewed 300 18- to 29-year-olds to ask them about their lives and whether or not they feel like adolescents or adults. The most common response was-neither adolescent nor adult, I feel "in-between." Turns out, the majority of 18- to 29-year-olds feel this way. Based on this, he concluded that there is a new stage of life between adolescence and adulthood and he named that emerging adulthood. This previously unrecognized stage gained popularity in some circles, and laid the foundation for the Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood, a book characterizing the age period, and an edited volume that distinguishes this stage from adolescence and adulthood.
In the opposing corner, scholars argue that there is no "emerging adulthood," but rather, an extended adolescence that is stalling-off adulthood. The Network on Transitions to Adulthood, funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, accepts that there is a psychological component to becoming adult, but refutes the notion of a new "stage." This camp is steadfast in the belief that the roles that we take on delineate our youth from our adulthood and that preparation for these roles is the domain of adolescence. This network of scholars has produced three edited volumes covering the basics-the lengthened and individualized "new" way of making the transition to adulthood, how the transition to adulthood is different for vulnerable youth, and the economics of becoming adult. From this side of the ring, the focus remains on those old-school markers of adulthood, grappling with issues related to the timing and sequencing of graduations and entries into careers, marriages, and parenthood.
This debate between academic groups abstractly reflects our experiences in the real world. Whether or not the transition to adulthood is about the process of getting there vs. being there is an important one. Although not explicitly so, a great number of policies and programs are based on assumptions of age and adult status. There is juvenile court and adult court, car insurance is based on age, whether you go to the pediatrician or a GP for health care is defined by age, etc.
For all of us, this academic debate comes home—often at holidays—when adult children and parents confront questions about responsibility, control, independence, support, and all of the decisions involved in the transition to adulthood. Understanding what to do to help launch their children when they no longer have any legal responsibility to do so (emerging adult translation: "you have no right to control me!") presents a different set of challenges. And emerging adults are, too, confused about what is "normal."
What the two sides agree on is that there is no road-map to guide young people through the transitions. Whether this is a distinct stage or not, we do know that recent generations are entering into these years with little guidance and few resources compared to those available to them as youth, and there are few institutions, policies, or programs designed to meet their distinct needs. Keeping the conversation going is essential for refining our understanding of this important demographic. They are, regardless of how they get there, the future of society.