Are Youth Shattering Traditional Notions of Adulthood?

How race, class, gender, and sexuality are forming young people's identities.

Posted Jan 19, 2020

Source: AndreyPopov/DepositPhotos

More than a half-century after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., how have African American and other marginalized youth changed? How do young people understand their social and political identities through the lens of race, class, gender, and sexuality?

New research provides a glimpse into the changing attitudes of American youth whose lives intersect with inequality, racism, and discrimination—attitudes and behaviors that Dr. King sought to eradicate. Conducted by Shauna Morimoto, Associate Professor at the University of Arkansas, this study illuminates the continuing struggle of marginalized young people as they seek to find their places in American society (Morimoto, 2020).  

Many researchers who study adolescent and young adult development use the concept of “emerging adulthood” to mark the space between adolescence and adulthood. The term, first coined by Jeffrey Arnett, Research Professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, is characterized as a life transition of deep exploration and discovery—a period where young people attain financial and personal independence (Arnett, 2000). While Arnett’s work has been validated by other studies, it has also faced criticism for its focus on white middle-class youth.

Morimoto’s study with U.S. high school students is particularly enlightening because it examines emerging adulthood from a perspective informed by race, class, gender, sexuality, and other attributes that are influenced by today’s social, political, and economic environments. Her research suggests that viewing young people’s lives from this intersectional perspective helps us understand the complexity of growing up in 21st century America.

The study not only shows that today’s young people question traditional indicators of adulthood, but they are also reshaping what those indicators mean. Morimoto argues that adolescent and adult development must be understood in the context of many societal changes—and how those changes affect the developmental trajectory of today’s youth.

Morimoto’s research study sought the perspectives of young people on their own emerging adulthoods through interviews with high-school students aged 14-19. Twenty-three percent of the 116 study participants were students of color; many others were from lower socio-economic backgrounds. The research analysis focused on the responses from low-income students and students of color because the perspectives of these participants were integral to the study’s goal. 

Sexuality, Marriage, Childbearing, Individuality, Service, and Education

The study produced a myriad of insights about the changing attitudes and behaviors of emerging adults, particularly how their beliefs are informed by race, gender, sexuality, and class.

The following are highlights from the findings.

  • Students believe they are reshaping societal notions about heterosexuality—that it is not the default sexual orientation. Hence, their beliefs are changing previous ideas about marriage and family relationships.
  • Young people do not see marriage as central to having a healthy adulthood. Rather than being tied to traditions, they are creatively expanding on those traditions and treating conventional expectations as problems to be resolved.
  • High school students are making decisions about their lives, previously considered to be adult decisions. For example, one black student chose to become pregnant twice in high school because she wanted to be finished raising children by the age of 30 to enjoy more freedom later. Like many her age, she felt comfortable making decisions that were “out of order” from traditional norms.
  • As they grapple with gender discrimination, young people in this study viewed the idea of masculinity and femininity as flexible and fluid. Many are working in social justice initiatives to end structural inequalities for LBGTQ communities that have existed for centuries.
  • While some youth challenge social norms, others hold on to more conventional understandings. Not surprisingly, beliefs often collide to form judgments, misunderstandings, and bullying behaviors.
  • Young people point out that moving from adolescence to adulthood is not about walking acceptingly through a developmental stage. It is determined by making individual choices that are informed by one’s gender, race, class, and sexuality.
  • When young people feel marginalized or are part of underrepresented groups, the transition out of adolescence often includes a desire to give back to their communities. For one black 17-year old, adulthood represented more than independence and career choices. It was a way of responding to his own difficult childhood by involving himself in lifting kids out of similar situations.
  • Many students of color and youth from low-income households object to the traditional view of success because that view does not fit with their lived experiences. They believe the American educational system has fostered structural inequality and must become more relevant to all young people.
  • Rather than waiting for the world to change, students believe they can use their racial, gender, and sexual identities to shape the world around them. As marginalized youth continue to face societal constraints, they also acknowledge they must forge a path that honors their own lived experiences. For them, becoming an adult is less about stages than it is about navigating the uncertainly that comes with adulthood.

Young People Are Making a Difference

When Martin Luther King Jr. died in 1968, there were long-established expectations for white middle-class youth. Their paths to adulthood were well-defined—a job, marriage, family, and stability. Because the same pathways were not equally available to black youth, MLK acted to reduce racial inequality. It was one of his many legacies.

Today, traditional notions about adulthood are being shattered by a new generation. More than fifty years later, there is still much work to be done to eliminate structural inequalities for children of color and other marginalized young people.

Youth are making a difference.

The interviews with young people in Morimoto’s study share similar themes with those who contributed to the research in Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation (2015). Together, they show that adulthood is less about prescriptive expectations and more about learning to navigate the complexities of an extraordinarily complex world.

Armed with greater awareness and abilities to understand and solve complex problems, today’s youth are not only changing conversations about structural inequality but also contributing to resolving local and global issues.


Arnett, Jeffrey J. 2000. Emerging Adulthood: A Theory of Development from the Late Teens through the Twenties. American Psychologist 55(5):469-80.

Morimoto, S. A. (2020). Emerging Adulthood: An Intersectional Examination of the Changing Life CoursePrzegląd Socjologii Jakościowej, 15(4), 14-33.

Price-Mitchell, M. (2015). Tomorrow's Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation. Seattle, WA, Eagle Harbor Publishing.