We’ve heard it all before. Today’s 20-somethings are failing to reach the traditional marks of adulthood: marriage, children, gainful employment, home ownership. The median age at first marriage is now 26 for women and 28 for men — five years higher than four decades ago. And 40 percent of 20-somethings move back home at least once. According to The New York Times article “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” we may be observing the emergence of a new life stage:
Getting to what we would generally call adulthood is happening later than ever. But why? That’s the subject of lively debate among policy makers and academics. To some, what we’re seeing is a transient epiphenomenon, the byproduct of cultural and economic forces. To others, the longer road to adulthood signifies something deep, durable and maybe better-suited to our neurological hard-wiring. What we’re seeing, they insist, is the dawning of a new life stage — a stage that all of us need to adjust to.
That’s the opinion of Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a psychology professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
He is leading the movement to view the 20s as a distinct life stage, which he calls ’emerging adulthood.’ He says what is happening now is analogous to what happened a century ago, when social and economic changes helped create adolescence — a stage we take for granted but one that had to be recognized by psychologists, accepted by society and accommodated by institutions that served the young. Similar changes at the turn of the 21st century have laid the groundwork for another new stage, Arnett says, between the age of 18 and the late 20s.
But is this truly a new life stage? Some question that. One major argument against Arnett’s theory is the fact that not all countries share the “emerging adulthood” period we see in the U.S. marked by “boomerang kids” and “helicopter parents.” Essentially, it is not possible for parents in third-world countries to continue supporting their offspring past childhood — so the kids deal. They grow up.
To qualify as a developmental stage, emerging adulthood must be both universal and essential. ‘If you don’t develop a skill at the right stage, you’ll be working the rest of your life to develop it when you should be moving on,’ [Richard Lerner, Bergstrom chairman in applied developmental science at Tufts University] said. ‘The rest of your development will be unfavorably altered.’ The fact that Arnett can be so casual about the heterogeneity of emerging adulthood and its existence in some cultures but not in others — indeed, even in some people but not in their neighbors or friends — is what undermines, for many scholars, his insistence that it’s a new life stage.
While I certainly see the unique challenges for 20-somethings today, including the task of being economically secure (in a bad economy) and finding a spouse (something that didn’t happen for me until 31), I question whether this is a distinctive life stage. Perhaps what is masquerading as “emerging adulthood” — an all new life stage! — is simply what we here have been calling adultescence. What do you think?