En español │To a lot of us, today's twenty-somethings seem like a whole new breed. On the positive side, they're often wonderfully full of zest for life and a sense of adventure — traveling, studying abroad, moving to a new city and trying all kinds of new experiences. On the not-so-positive side, they sometimes seem to have trouble finding a direction in life, and many take longer to become independent and accept responsibilities than young people did in past decades.
- Fifty years ago the median age of entering marriage in the U.S. was 20 for women and 22 for men; today it's 26 for women and 28 for men, and still rising.
- In 1960 only 33 percent of young people went to college; today, 69 percent of high school graduates enter college the next year.
- Women used to have few options besides wife and mother; today they exceed men in college enrollment and are equal to men in law school, medical school and business school enrollment.
- Young Americans expect a lot more out of work than their parents or grandparents did. They change jobs an average of seven times from age 20 to 29 as they search for work that is personally fulfilling, not just a job but an adventure.
Put all these changes together and the result is a new life stage: "Emerging Adulthood." This period typically runs from age 18 to 25, although it lasts through the 20s for some. Based on hundreds of research interviews, I've identified five features as typical of emerging adulthood:
Identity explorations. This is a time when young people focus on figuring out who they are and what they want to do with their lives, as they try out different possibilities in love and work. Your 18-year-old may head for college with pre-med in mind, then discover a love for marine biology as a sophomore, and by age 24 have moved on to international business.
Instability. In the course of all these identity explorations there are many changes — in jobs, in love partners, in where they live and in plans for the future. More than any other stage of life, it is difficult to predict where they'll be and what they'll be doing from one year to the next.
Self-focus. Emerging adults are focusing on their self-development and have relatively few obligations to others, so they have more freedom than people of other ages have. You can text them, and they may text you back — or they may not. It's important to them to carve out a space where they can make their own decisions.
Feeling In-Between. Most emerging adults feel somewhere in-between adolescence and adulthood, on the way to adulthood but not there yet. And most are in no particular hurry, although nearly all get there eventually. Adulthood means paying your own bills and taking on all sorts of responsibilities, something they regard with mixed feelings.
Sense of Possibilities. Most are highly optimistic about their future and believe that all doors are still potentially open to them. Even though nearly all are struggling in the present, both personally and financially, they believe that eventually they'll snag that just-right job and find their soul mate.
In many ways, the rise of this new life stage is a good thing. Why shouldn't young people take most of their twenties to try out many possible paths?
Most of them make use of the freedom of emerging adulthood to have experiences they couldn't have when they were younger and probably won't be able to have when they're older, such as teaching in China for a year, perhaps, or taking a low-paid but fascinating internship with a nonprofit organization.
But there's a downside as well. Some emerging adults feel overwhelmed by the challenges of this life stage and drift along aimlessly, waiting for something to happen rather than making it happen. Sometimes parents are surprised and dismayed to find that the emotional and financial responsibilities of parenting last for many years longer than they had anticipated.
So, what should parents do? We think it's wise to be patient with emerging adults, as long as they seem to have a Plan with a capital P and are trying to move it along. Try to put aside the timetable that applied decades ago and respect the longer road to adulthood they are traveling today. Encourage them and provide support when they seem open to it, but learn when to step back and let them make their way — including their mistakes — on their own. It's a delicate balance.
Above all, parents, it can help to realize that the winding road to adulthood is the new normal. You may be relieved to learn that nearly everyone grows out of emerging adulthood and, by about age 30, takes on the roles of young adulthood — marriage, parenthood and a stable job. Seeing emerging adulthood as a normal stage of life today can help ease our anxiety and maybe even allow us to celebrate our emerging adults' energy, optimism and appetite for life.
Jeffrey Jensen Arnett is a research professor of psychology at Clark University and author of Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties. Elizabeth Fishel is a widely published writer on family issues and the author of four nonfiction books, including Sisters and Reunion. They are working on a parents' guide to emerging adulthood, to be published by Workman in 2012.