When does adolescence end? When does adulthood begin? Traditionally adulthood began when education, whether secondary or higher, was complete; the person would begin a career and settle down, starting a family. In recent decades, the transition to adulthood has lengthened as more people have entered college and graduate school and delayed making major life choices in the areas of career, marriage, and parenthood until their mid to late twenties. The late teens through the mid-twenties has become a period in which people explore and experience changes in love, work, and worldviews and, ultimately, lay the foundation for their adult lives. Recently, developmental psychologist Jeffrey Arnett has described a new phase in development between adolescence and adulthood called emerging adulthood.
What Is Emerging Adulthood?
Emerging adulthood begins with the end of secondary school and ends with the attainment of full adult status—usually running the years from 18 to 25, though for many people it may last through the late twenties. Demographic changes have made the late teens and early twenties not simply a brief transitional period between adolescence and adulthood but a qualitatively different period of human development. Emerging adulthood is characterized by change and exploration of possible life directions, jobs, residences, partners, and worldviews. It is not a universal period of development but exists under certain conditions that have occurred only recently in some cultures.
Social Changes Leading To Emerging Adulthood
Over the past half-century, demographic shifts have taken place that have changed the nature of adolescence and early adulthood. People are getting married later than ever before. In 1970, the median age of marriage in the United States was 21 for women and 23 for men; by 2002, it was 25 for women and 27 for men. Age of first childbirth follows a similar pattern. The advent of the birth control pill in the 1960s and more widespread acceptance of premarital sexuality and cohabitation before marriage also have influenced the rising ages of marriage and parenthood. Additionally, the number of young people who enter college after high school has risen from 14% in the 1940s to 64% in 2003.
These changes have occurred in most industrialized countries, altering the nature of development during the late teens and early twenties in these societies and making emerging adulthood possible. For most individuals in industrialized societies, the late teens and early twenties are no longer a time of entering and settling into long-term adult roles, but a time of exploration and frequent change.
Features Of Emerging Adulthood
Several features make emerging adulthood distinct from other periods in life. Emerging adulthood is a distinct time of demographic variability and identity exploration and is experienced as different from both adolescence and adulthood.
Demographic norms are clear for adolescents and young adults. More than 95% of American adolescents from ages 12 to 17 live at home with one or more parents, more than 98% are unmarried, more than 90% have never had a child, and more than 95% are enrolled in school. By age 30, about 75% of people have married and become parents and fewer than 10% are in school. The time between 17 and 30, however, is a time without demographic norms. Some emerging adults enter college, often attending with stops and starts, taking more than the traditional 4 years to graduate. Other emerging adults enter the world of work. Most leave home by 18 or 19. Some live in college dorms, others in apartments with friends, others in apartments alone, some cohabitate, some marry, and others live with one or more parents. Variability characterizes emerging adulthood. It is the only period in life in which nothing is normative demographically.
The independence from parents, social roles, and adult responsibilities permits emerging adults freedom to explore possibilities in love, work, and worldviews. The process of identity development may begin in adolescence, but identity achievement is rarely reached by the end of high school. Most identity development takes place during emerging adulthood. It is a process of trying on possibilities and exploring alternatives in order to ultimately make enduring decisions.
Emerging adults often seek life experience for its own sake; sensation-seeking behaviors, in which emerging adults seek out new and intense experiences, increase. For example, many emerging adults experiment with a variety of romantic and sexual experiences. Several forms of risky activities peak in emerging adulthood: unprotected sex, most types of substance use, and risky driving. Each of these risky activities can be understood as part of identity explorations; emerging adults seek a wider range of experiences before making choices and settling down into the roles and responsibilities of adult life.
One important focus of identity development is in the area of love. Romantic relationships are more intimate and serious during emerging adulthood. Instead of group dating, popular among adolescents, dating becomes one on one. Relationships tend to last longer, include sex, and often include cohabitation. Similarly, during emerging adulthood, work experiences tend to become more focused on preparation for careers and adult work roles. Emerging adults try on jobs and career contexts to test their fit. It is not uncommon for college students to change majors multiple times, sampling educational paths that would prepare them for various career possibilities. More people are pursuing graduate school—especially as a way of changing career paths after college.
Worldview, another area in which we undergo identity development, also develops and changes during emerging adulthood. During these volitional years, people are open to different perspectives and modify their worldview as they grow, change, and learn about the world. By the end of the college years, most emerging adults have established a worldview that is more complex than the one they held when they graduated high school. By the mid to late twenties, most people have committed themselves to enduring identities in the areas of love, work, and worldview.
Emerging adults are aware of making the transition to adulthood and of the challenges of measuring up to adult roles and responsibilities. When asked whether they have reached adulthood, the majority of people in their late teens and early twenties will reply, “in some respects, yes, in some respects, no,” reflecting their feeling that they are neither adolescents nor adults, but somewhere in-between.
What does it mean to become an adult? The top criteria for adulthood, as rated by emerging adults, are accepting responsibility for one’s self, making independent decisions, and financial independence. Each of these criteria emphasizes self-sufficiency. During emerging adulthood, people learn to take responsibility and develop these qualities of character as well as develop the skills and acquire the education and experience to become financially independent. Only after these tasks have been completed do they move into young adulthood; typically this is during the mid to late twenties. In young adulthood, people are self-sufficient and show more stability in work, family, and personal relationships.
Context And Emerging Adulthood
Emerging adulthood is not a universal stage of development, but a period that exists in contexts that permit it: those that postpone the entry into adult roles and responsibilities until the twenties. Therefore, emerging adulthood generally is found in highly industrialized and postindustrial countries. Not all individuals within a country, however, experience emerging adulthood. Educational and occupational opportunities influence the extent to which the late teens and twenties can be experienced as an experimental and volitional period. Young people from working class and below may have fewer opportunities for the explorations of emerging adulthood than do those with families of higher socioeconomic status. Emerging adulthood is contextually constructed; it occurs in contexts that permit a gradual entry to adulthood.
Emerging adulthood is a newly defined period in human development ranging from the late teens through the midto late twenties and is characterized by variability in demographics, a quest for identity development, and a subjective sense of feeling inbetween adolescence and adulthood. Emerging adults explore and experience changes in love, work, and worldviews, and, ultimately, lay the foundation for their adult lives.
- Arnett, J. (1998). Learning to stand alone: The contemporary transition to adulthood in cultural and historical context. Human Development, 41 (5/6), 295–316.
- Arnett, J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55 (5), 469–480.
- Arnett, J. (2004). Emerging adulthood: The winding road from the late teens through the twenties. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Arnett, J., & Tabor, S. (1994). Adolescence terminable and interminable: When does adolescence end? Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 23(5), 517–538.
- Dupont, -M., & Edwards, P. (n.d.). Transition to adulthood. Retrieved from http://www.growinghealthykids.com/english/transitions/adulthood/home/index.html
- Society for Research on Adolescence. (n.d.). Emerging Adulthood Special Interest Group. Retrieved from http://www.s-r-a.org/easig.html