Those Pitied, Mocked, Envied Years Between the Late Teens and Late Twenties: What Are They Really About?

The stereotype of emerging adults as wanton ne'er-do-wells is just wrong.

Posted Dec 07, 2008

A Conversation with Jeffrey Jensen Arnett

This is the "Living Single" blog, but what it means to live single can be very different depending on the phase of life you are in. Today, I've invited an expert on "emerging adulthood" to tell us what life is really like for people in the ages between the late teens and late 20s. I think that's a very interesting group because it is one that does get a lot of media attention, but not always in an accurate way.

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett is one of the leading scholars of this group. He wrote the book, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties, and I invited him to answer some questions. I'm delighted that he agreed.

Bella: Once upon a time, it was easy to say when adulthood began - it was when you got married. One of the findings from your work that I have found most intriguing is that young people today do not use marriage as the criterion for deciding when they have, in fact, become adults. What are the criteria they use now?

Jeff: Today the criteria are more individualistic and gradual, specifically these 3: accepting responsibility for yourself, making independent decisions, and becoming financially independent. I've been amazed by how the same 3 criteria have come out on top in over a dozen studies by me and others, in every American social class and ethnic group, and in countries all over the world. And it's not just emerging adults who place these 3 criteria on top, it's also adolescents and young and middle adults. Where the heck did marriage go, and finishing your education, and turning 18 or 21? My interpretation is that these old-fashioned criteria are all social criteria that can be measured and judged by others. I think in today's individualistic world, emerging adults like to make their own judgments about whether they have reached adulthood-or not.

Bella: In the first chapter of your book, Emerging Adulthood, you caution that emerging adulthood is NOT the same as late adolescence, young adulthood, transition to adulthood, or youth. Can you explain what emerging adulthood really is?

Jeff: I don't think it's just "late adolescence," because they are not going through puberty, they're not in high school, and most don't live in their parents' household. I don't think "young adulthood" fits because they haven't entered the roles that we associate with adulthood, such as stable work and (for many but not all) marriage and parenthood, and most are not financially independent. I don't think "the transition to adulthood" works because it lasts so long. Ten years seems a bit long for a "transition" to adulthood. And "youth" is the worst of all, because it has been applied to people from age 6 to 40, so it doesn't have a clear meaning. This is really a new life stage, so it needs a new name. Never in human history have we had such a long gap between the time people reach the end of puberty and the time they feel fully adult and have taken on the full range of adult responsibilities. I've found "emerging adulthood" resonates well with many of the people who are in this age period now. It describes their sense of being on the way to adulthood but not there yet.

So what is "emerging adulthood"? It's a period of making your way gradually toward constructing an adult life, in love and work. In my book I describe emerging adulthood has having 5 features that make it distinct: it's the age of identity explorations, the age of instability, the self-focused age, the age of feeling in-between, and the age of possibilities. These features don't necessarily start or end in emerging adulthood, but I think that's when they're most prominent.

Bella: This is a blog about singles, so I'm interested in how you see singles in relation to emerging adulthood. On the one hand, you say marriage is not an important criterion for adulthood, but on the other, you use marriage as one of the "adult roles" that mark the end of emerging adulthood and the beginning of young adulthood.

Jeff: I think young people today reach adulthood according to the 3 subjective, individualistic criteria I described above, then they may or may not marry and become parents. Most people-about 75% of Americans-marry and become parents by age 30, but I think the subjective criteria are more important for marking the end of emerging adulthood and the beginning of young adulthood. As you've described so well, there are still lots of prejudices against singles, especially after age 30, this sniggering sense that they never really grow up, but I don't think that's true.

Bella: One of my missions in researching and writing about singles is to separate the stereotypes and myths from the truths. One relatively new claim is that people today experience a "quarterlife crisis." Can you explain what is meant by that term and where you think it falls on the myth vs truth dimension?

Jeff: I think you've done great work combating the stereotypes about singles, in "Singled Out" and in your blog. I've tried to do the same for emerging adults. It's amazing to me how many unflattering myths there are about them-they're lazy, they're selfish, they're miserable, they're depraved. I've found them to be quite wonderful in my interviews, by and large. I love their energy and their optimism. They are far less sexist, racist, and homophobic than their parents or grandparents were, national surveys show this. They also do far more volunteer work, in organizations like the Peace Corps and Teach for America. And they are more aware of the suffering of people in the rest of the world than young people ever were before, and more determined to do something about it. So, I think we should be celebrating them instead of tearing them down.

I do think there is something to the "quarterlife crisis" claim, although it has been exaggerated. Few of them are quivering masses of anxieties, but most of them experience stress in emerging adulthood, because they are dealing with the identity issues of who they are and what kind of adult life they want to make for themselves, and because most have no money. But their sense of stress coexists with their high hopes. They struggle in emerging adulthood, most of them, but nearly all of them believe life is going to smile on them eventually. That's why I call it "the age of possibilities." I find it touching to hear them talk about their high hopes, because I know that life's smiles are granted a lot more sparingly than they realize.

Bella: Jeff, the first time I knew I just had to get your insights represented in this blog was when I saw a review of a new book called Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. I have to confess that before I read even a word of the review or the book, I had a bad feeling about it. That was because of a giant picture that was printed along with the review. It showed a gathering of shapely, attractive, bikini-clad young women, holding drinks and frolicking in a pool with their male counterparts, one of whom was pumping a fist. Talk about stereotypes! Plus, to make it even worse, the caption said that this "never-ending party" was, for some, the "new normal for guys." Now I know better than to believe everything I read, so this could have been a matter of a reporter getting it wrong. Since you've read the book, and your academic expertise on these matters is probably unparalleled, why don't you tell us what you think of it.

Jeff: I read the book, and it was disappointing. Yet another slander against emerging adults, still more negative stereotyping. Sure, there are guys who get drunk a lot, act like jerks toward women, and have a shallow view of life. But the author's mistake is to imply that all young guys today are like this, and that they're worse than ever. Neither of these claims is true. What's really striking is how much less sexist, racist, and homophobic young guys are now than in the past. Most want an equal partner in a romantic and sexual relationship, not just someone who will serve them. Most have friends who are of different ethnic groups, and most have gay or lesbian friends and don't make a big deal out of it. What's more, rates of every type of "guy problem" have declined sharply in the past 30 years among emerging adults-including alcohol use, crime, and unprotected sex. So the assertion that the typical young guy today is a drunken porno-mad potential rapist is nonsense. It's untrue and unfair. [Note from Bella: Here's a take on Guyland from Paul Raeburn, another Psychology Today blogger.]

Bella: During the same week that review of Guyland appeared, there was a story about single men in the New York Times. The take on single men in this article could not have been more different. The Times was writing about the growing trend of single men raising children, and the great devotion to fatherhood so many of them show. One of the men in the story was an attorney, who had a crib set up in his office. The reporter pointed out that many of these single men are similar to the single women who have jobs that pay well and allow them to support themselves and some children, too. Did you think the article was accurate? If this is a real trend and not just hype, do you see any significance in it?

Jeff: I didn't see the article, but it sounds exaggerated in the other direction. I doubt if there are many attorneys with cribs in their offices. Single men are still a very small proportion of single parents, only about 10%. Parenting is one area that is still really unequal between the genders. Even when there are two partners and both work full-time, women still end up doing most of the child care and household work. But I'm hopeful that will change when the emerging adults of today enter parenthood. Young men say they want to be involved fathers, and I think they mean it.

Bella: What have you learned about the importance of people's friends in emerging adulthood? Do you have any sense of how the role of friends is different today than it was for 20-somethings in the past? For example, are attitudes such as political preferences less likely to be passed on from generation to generation, and more likely to be influenced by friends, than they were before?

Jeff: This a fascinating area, something I want to research more. There's not much research on it yet. My sense is that because more people now stay single for longer, friends are more important than ever during emerging adulthood. However, a lot depends on whether they have a current romantic partner. When they're not involved with anyone, they look to their friends for companionship and support, but when they're in love, the love partner comes first.

With regard to political preferences, it was certainly striking how Obama's election was driven so much by emerging adults. Not only did they vote for Obama by the largest margin of any age group, tens of thousands of them worked for him all over the country. Emerging adults have the freedom to get up and go in a way that people can't once they have a stable job and family responsibilities, so they were able to go to Ohio, Virginia, Florida, wherever they were needed. Obama is an inspiring figure, but I'm sure the camaraderie of working with other emerging adults and making friends was also part of the draw for those who worked for him. I'm sure those who were inspired by him early on influenced their friends, who also became inspired to work for him.

Bella: I know that you've studied how people's relationships with their parents change during emerging adulthood. Do any of those relationships become true friendships during that time? Should they?

Jeff: I've been struck by how highly emerging adults think of their parents and how well they get along with them. Of course, it's easier to get along with someone once you don't live with them, and emerging adults who move out get along better with their parents than those who stay home. But it's more than that. Emerging adults really come to respect and value their parents as friends. I can't tell you how many emerging adults have told me that they regret treating their parents badly as adolescents, and that now they see their parents as persons in a way they didn't before. I think it's a great thing for both sides. Emerging adults benefit from having a parent who acts as a supportive and nurturing friend, and of course the change is gratifying to parents, to be loved and respected more. Emerging adulthood is the big payoff of parenting, after all the years of stress and sacrifice.

Many thanks, Jeff. It was great of you to share your important work with us. For readers who want to learn more about Jeffrey Jensen Arnett's work on emerging adulthood, visit his website.