Adulting in the Age of Neo-Diversity Anxiety

Why college students talk so much about "adulting."

Posted Jan 02, 2019

Adulting is an idea that I think I started hearing around the year 2014. I was entertained yet confused to see memes like,

“That horrifying moment when you’re looking for an adult, but you realize you are an adult. So you look around for an older adult. An adultier adult. Someone better at adulting than you.”

What?  I was puzzled and so I did what a scholar does. I started thinking about this from the perspective my discipline of social psychology.

Who am I? There is no more important and no more troubling question in the life of every human being (1).

Everybody has a starting point in life. A point from which their sense of self builds. For all of us, our starting points begin in a group called the family. No doubt, then, our sense of self is group-based. Through social interaction in our families, and then more and more with a local community linked to our family, we develop our primary group orientation.

Whatever the particular version of “family” they have learned in, that experience gives the child/person their “Primary Group Orientation” to interdependence with others. The primary-group-orientation is a script for how good social interactions and relationships are set up and how the person fits into good social interactions and relationships. 

How, in particular, does it develop?  Well, the primary-group-orientation to interdependence is the result of what the child learns about social interaction in the primary care unit. Straightforward enough, except here is the kicker. Like our height, the primary group orientation is one of those things that we carry with us to every social interaction and relationship environment.

When the child goes out of the primary-care unit to interact with others, it is this primary group orientation to interdependence that guides the child’s motivations toward, preferences for, and adaptations to, new patterns of interdependence and social interaction. What is the implication of that in 21st century America?

For a time in America, our primary group orientations were not something people challenged in our everyday social interactions. Every day, commonplace, social interaction in the world was really just continued interaction within the local community linked to our family. Now, today, people leave their local communities for better opportunities, for more necessary education. That means you will encounter challenges to your old answers to the question, “Who am I?” No longer is that question so singular; now that question transforms into “…who am I in this new situation with this new (to me) mix of people?”

Not any longer are American colleges and universities made up of people from just one-group; male, female, white, black, Christian, middle-class. That important democratic evolution presents challenges to us all but especially to the young person coming to college to begin their higher education.

What challenge?  The challenge of the “…who am I” question in this new and neo-diverse social environment.

“I know I have to, but nobody taught me how to be an adult in an environment with so many different kinds of people.” 

Far too many college students are in the college situation where they are “…looking around for an older adult. An adultier adult. Someone better at adulting…” than they are.

March 2013, spring semester, I was invited to make a presentation to counselors who receive clients in our Student Health Counseling Center. I am a research social psychologist. I am not a counselor or psychotherapist by any stretch of the imagination. Why, then, did these counselors’ want to hear from me?

Thirty years on the faculty at NC State, I knew one thing for sure. Anyone who was a student here twenty years ago knows very little about our campus. Twenty years ago, one way our students entertained themselves was by going to Blockbuster Video on Friday nights to get movies. Say “Blockbuster Video” to a college student today and their faces go blank with confusion. That means that students whose parents were students twenty years ago have heard stories about “college” that no longer apply.

Even just the way classrooms have changed is beyond the experience of a twenty-year-ago student. Same as with the technological change that brought down “Blockbuster Video,” our classrooms are all smart-technology rooms; no slide projectors and overheads, but lecture desktop computers that activate screens, stream movie clips, and show Powerpoint presentations. Every classroom; every one.

I pay particular attention to social change, and I saw rapid social change happening on our campus. When I came to NC State in 1988, I don’t think I ever saw a Muslim woman wearing a hijab. By 2002, that was commonplace. Ten years later (2012) with a significant presence of African American students, there was a growing presence of brown people, Latino/Hispanic people; a growing presence of a vocal LGBT community.

Observing all along (2), I saw the growing struggle our students were having learning how to have respectful interactions with this neo-diverse mix of people. To help our students using my expertise as a scholar of intergroup tensions, I wrote and self-published for the campus my little book “Howl of the Wolf: North Carolina State University Students Call out for Social Change” (3). The dust cover of the book reads, in part,

“Using student writing from his ‘Interpersonal Relationships and Race’ course, Dr. Rupert Nacoste presents North Carolina State University students’ voices describing their new awareness and growing understanding of neo-diversity... In their own words, NCSU students describe how they have experienced the anxiety of being in interaction with a person who is not like them in some way (by race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation). These students then speak out about how their new understanding of that anxiety has changed them and made them want to accept the reality of neo-diversity.”

With the help of a group of my students, right away I gave out over a thousand copies of this book free to students. With that distribution and students' positive response to the ideas in the book, people all over our campus heard about my work, including the counselors in our Student Health Counseling Center.

One or two of the counselors learned from students that I talk about the new interpersonal situation in America where we all have to encounter and interact with people from many different groups, and that I linked that neo-diversity situation to interaction anxiety. That is why a number of the counselors wanted me to talk with them, these counselors, about neo-diversity social change, and about this new kind of social anxiety that they might encounter in their clients as a result.

In the fall of 2016, one of my students wrote:

"Due to my limited (diversity-interaction) background, I was filled with anxiety and uneasiness as I entered NCSU, one of the most demographically diverse universities in the state.  While I was prepared in academic capability, I was not prepared socially for what new experiences I was about to endure.

Entering my freshman year, I was not nervous about leaving the comforts of my home, but I was petrified to have a non-white roommate. What will we talk about? Will she think I am weird? What if we hate each other?”

Here we have a student who is in trouble. Not their fault; they did not set up the experiences of the social environment of their childhood. Yet it is their primary-group-orientation, created by those experiences, they bring with them to campus. How do we help students with this incredible adjustment to neo-diversity problem?"

Going on, my student wrote:

"While I was not placed with a non-white roommate, all of my new environmental and social surroundings welled into a pit of anxiety from which I wasn’t sure how to manage. So I sought out help and information from the counseling center here at NCSU.  Apparently, this university has other students who struggle with interpersonal interactions with people we perceive as different from ourselves.

And at the counseling center, I was guided and encouraged to participate in diversity training put on by the University Activities Board. I have positively broadened my perceptions and interactions with others to the point where I feel honored and privileged to attend such a diverse and inclusive university, even though there is still work to be done.”

Reading that student’s paper in 2016, I was gratified to remember my (March-2013) time with the counselors in our Student Health Center. If nothing else, with my presentation on neo-diversity, with the copies of “Howl of the Wolf” I gave to them, I had provided those counselors with an understanding of the new social environment our students might have neo-diversity anxiety struggles navigating.

Young people are entering college and university campuses with a mix of intergroup experiences and a mix of intergroup attitudes. No matter whether their family did or did not expose them to social interactions with people from different groups, as soon as they come to our campus those young people encounter unavoidable neo-diversity. For many, for the first time in their lives, they have to interact with people from many different racial, religious, sex, bodily-conditioned, ethnic, sexually oriented, socio-economic, mental-health-conditioned, gender-identified, groups.

In that neo-diverse social context, colleges and universities expect and demand that these students “adult.” Nonetheless, the social psychology of the situation is that those encounters and interactions with that neo-diversity of our campuses cause many students to experience a neo-diversity anxiety feeling of being in a situation both “…bizarre and inexplicable” (4).

Still, colleges and universities expect all of our students to “adult”; to adapt to the neo-diversity future we are already living in. Some are first-generation students whose families have no prior knowledge of even the old college social environment. Some come from families that tell them stories that are nothing but ghosts of a college social environment that no longer exist.

Platitudes do not help.

“You just have to be more accepting”

“Back in my day…”

You might as well be speaking to them from the perspective of someone who thinks that “Blockbuster Videos” is still the way things work “…at college.” No wonder young people have developed their own language for the anxiety-filled challenges they face but have not been prepared for. The language of “adulting” is an indicator that these young people are in need of guidance that better fits the neo-diversity future we are already living in.


1.      Duval, S. & Wicklund, R. A. (1972). A theory of objective self-awareness. New York: Academic Press

2. Nacoste, R. W. (2010). Making Gumbo in the University Austin, TX: Plain View Press.  (This is my memoir of my life of work on diversity, which includes my work in the Navy; but this memoir focuses especially on my turbulent stint as NCSU’s first Vice Provost for Diversity and African American Affairs)

3. Nacoste, R. W. (2012). Howl of the Wolf: North Carolina State University Students Call Out For Social Change. (2012: Raleigh, NC: Rupert W. Nacoste, Lulu Press).

4. Nacoste, R. W. (2009).  Post-Racial?: Something Even More Bizarre and Inexplicable.  Making Connections: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Cultural Diversity, 11, 1-10.