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.
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.