Emerging Adulthood: The "In-Between" Developmental Stage

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Emerging adulthood is a new developmental stage, taking place between adolescence and young adulthood, proposed by psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett. It is defined as a period of identity exploration that takes place before individuals make long-term adult commitments. Arnett has argued that emerging adulthood should be added to the eight life stages in Erikson's stage theory. Critics contend that the concept of emerging adulthood is simply the product of contemporary socioeconomic conditions and is non-universal, and thus should not be considered a true life stage.

Key Takeaways: Emerging Adulthood

  • Emerging adulthood is a developmental stage proposed by psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett.
  • The stage takes place between ages 18-25, after adolescence and before young adulthood. It is marked by a period of identity exploration.
  • Scholars disagree about whether or not emerging adulthood is a true developmental stage. Some argue that it is simply a label for young adults in specific socioeconomic conditions in industrialized countries.

Origins

In the middle of the 20th century, Erik Erikson proposed a stage theory of psychosocial development. The theory outlines eight stages that take place throughout the human life span. The fifth stage, which takes place during adolescence, is a period of identity exploration and development. During this stage, adolescents attempt to determine who they are in the present while also imagining possible futures for themselves. It is at this stage when individuals begin to pursue specific options for their lives, forgoing other options.

In 2000, psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett upended Erikson's theory by suggesting that adolescence is no longer the primary period of identity exploration. Instead, he proposed that emerging adulthood is a ninth stage of human development. According to Arnett, emerging adulthood takes place between the ages of 18 and 25—after adolescence but before young adulthood.

Arnett based his argument on demographic changes that had taken place in the decades since Erikson's work. Since the mid-1900s, social and economic shifts in the United States and other Western countries have led to increased college attendance. Meanwhile, entry into the workforce, marriage, and parenthood has been delayed from the early 20s to the mid-to-late 20s. As a result of these changes, Arnett claimed, the process of identity development largely takes place after adolescence, during the "emerging adulthood" stage.

What Emerging Adulthood Means

According to Arnett, emerging adulthood occurs during the transition period from adolescence to adulthood. Emerging adulthood takes places during the late teens and early-to-mid 20s, when individuals typically have relatively few externally-enforced expectations or obligations. They use this period as an opportunity for identity exploration, trying out different roles and engaging in different experiences, particularly in the domains of work, love, and worldview. Emerging adulthood ends gradually as individuals make more permanent adult commitments throughout their 20s.

Emerging adulthood is distinct from adolescence and young adulthood. Unlike adolescents, emerging adults have finished high school, are legally considered adults, have already gone through puberty, and often don’t live with their parents. Unlike young adults, emerging adults have not assumed adult roles in marriage, parenthood, or careers.

Risk-taking behavior, such as unprotected sex, substance abuse, and drunk or reckless driving, peaks in emerging adulthood—not adolescence, as is often assumed. Such risk-taking behavior is part of the identity exploration process. Part of the explanation for its peak in emerging adulthood is the fact that emerging adults have more freedom than adolescents and fewer responsibilities than young adults.

Emerging adults often report feeling not-quite-adult but not-quite-adolescent. As such, emerging adulthood and the associated feeling of being in-between adolescence and adulthood is a construct of Western cultures, and consequently, not universal. Adult status is reached as emerging adults learn to accept responsibility for themselves, make their own decisions, and become financially independent.

Controversy and Criticism

Since Arnett first introduced the concept of emerging adulthood almost two decades ago, the term and the ideas behind it have spread quickly through a number of academic disciplines. The term is now often used in research to describe a specific age cohort. Yet, in his stage theory of the human life span, Erikson noted that cases of prolonged adolescence, which would approximately coincide with the emerging adult years, were possible. Consequently, some researchers argue emerging adulthood is not a new phenomenon—it’s simply late adolescence.

There is still controversy amongst scholars over whether emerging adulthood really represents a distinct life stage. Some of the most common criticisms of the idea of emerging adulthood are as follows:

Financial Privilege

Some scholars have claimed that emerging adulthood is not a developmental phenomenon but a result of financial privilege that enables young people to attend college or delay the transition to full adulthood in other ways. These researchers argue that emerging adulthood is a luxury that those who must take on adult responsibilities, such as entering the workforce immediately after high school, must forego.

Awaiting Opportunity

Scholar James Côté takes this point a step further by arguing that emerging adults may not be involved in active, deliberate identity exploration at all. He suggests that, for social or economic reasons, these individuals are waiting for opportunities to become available that will enable them to make the transition into adulthood. From this perspective, active identity exploration may not take place beyond adolescence. This idea is supported by research, which found that a majority of emerging adults were engaged less in identity experimentation and more in working toward adult responsibilities and commitments.

False Limit on Identity Exploration

Other researchers argue that emerging adulthood unnecessarily limits the period of identity exploration. They argue that phenomenons like the rate of divorce and frequent job and career changes force people to re-evaluate their identities throughout the life span. Thus, identity exploration is now a life-long pursuit, and emerging adulthood is not unique for engaging in it.

Incongruity with Erikson's Theory

In his original stage theory, Erikson asserted that each stage was dependent on the previous stage. He said that if an individual doesn’t successfully develop specific skills during each stage, their development will be impacted at later stages. So, when Arnett concedes that emerging adulthood is culturally specific, non-universal, and may not exist in the future, he undermines his own argument that emerging adulthood is a distinct developmental period. Furthermore, emerging adulthood is limited to industrialized societies, and doesn’t generalize to all ethnic minorities in those societies.

Given all of these criticisms, scholars Leo Hendry and Marion Kloep contend that emerging adulthood is merely a useful label. It may well be that emerging adulthood accurately describes young adults in specific socioeconomic conditions in industrialized countries, but is not a true life stage.

Sources

  • Erikson, Erik H. Identity: Youth and Crisis. W.W. Norton & Company, 1968.
  • Hendry, Leo B., and Marion Kloep. “Conceptualizing emerging adulthood: Inspecting the emperor’s new clothes?” Child Development Perspectives, vol. 1, no. 2, 2007, pp. 74-79. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1750-8606.2007.00017.x
  • Settersten, Richard A., Jr. “Becoming Adult: Meanings and Markers for Young Americans.” The Network on Transitions to Adulthood Working Paper, 2006. youthnys.org/InfoDocs/BecomingAnAdult-3-06.pdf