You know when Britney sang I’m not a girl, not yet a woman? The song felt really relatable as an adolescent, but I’m convinced (and slightly concerned) its relatability has extended. There is a fairly new term that categorizes the age range of 18-25 year-olds called “emerging adults.” The attributes of emerging adults seem to partially explain why many modern 18-25-ers approach life somewhat differently than their parents and grandparents.
On becoming a functional human
What makes someone an adult? Common adult milestones include starting your own family and becoming financially independent or stable. Certain ages that legally allow you to do things like enlist in the military, drink alcohol, rent a car, vote, etc. tend to fall in the emerging range on the way to ‘proper’ adulthood. Traditions have rites of passage for adulthood like bar/bat mitzvahs.
There’s a section in book stores labeled “young adults.” It’s is aimed for adolescents and teens, but the term implies this group of people has indeed reached adulthood. Have they? This is why ‘emerging adults’ as a term suggests more of a progression or process.
The two main attributes of emerging adulthood are exploratory and instability. Technically, brain development is not complete until age 25. So the prefrontal cortex responsible for organization and planning for goals is not at its full capacity. At this age we are also more vulnerable to social pressures, particularly from our own peers.
Exploratory qualities demonstrate our brains’ influence on risky behaviors in this development period. I won’t go further with the neurobiology, but basically, I feel like I can blame switching college majors 4 times on my neurological immaturity.
Think about the point where you ‘officially’ crossed or will cross the line in society’s gaze and then for yourself. Notice the relationship here between society and you. The age range is fluid for emerging adults, because as some researchers argue, a 19-year-old might be considered an established adult, while a 29-year-old is still figuring it out.
From here, I’m going to expand emerging adulthood to 18-30 year-olds. I’m being generous because I think I still mostly fit in to it at 27. Certainly not the same way as before! I haven’t gone unchanged since 18, nor do I feel like 22-year-olds are really my peers anymore. Moving from this transitional period has been a bit slower for me.
So 18-30 year-olds overlap Millennials and Generation Z. I suppose if you are familiar with socially constructed generations you have an idea of what modern youth is like right now. Criticized for lower work ethic and cancel culture, but burdened with climate crisis and high cost of living about sums up the position.
I can’t deny that it feels good when someone much older says they are sympathetic to the world my youth is spent. Partly I am relieved for less judgment and pressure (that I admit may be from my own interpretations). Though I am sympathetic to the old who are facing “radical” changes, challenges to everything they know. Much of these changes are warranted, but they’re still not easy.
Emerging adults tend to delay starting families for pursuit of higher education. Higher education allows exercising exploration. “Exploring” is a kinder, more optimistic way of putting the seemingly aimless and lost feelings typical of this developmental period. There’s lots of experimenting, which members of older generations claim was impossible for them. Twenty-somethings will use this time to more solidly grasp their identity and purpose.
Instability is the other emerging adults quality because young people these days change residential situations more than the older generations before them. Pursuing degrees and taking more time to “get it right” and “figure it out” means racking student debt and hanging on longer to financial dependence on caregivers.
Based on my observations, I’d say most of my peers took their time carefully deciding how their lives are spent. We look for soul-mates to marry and occupations that spark passion and meaning. There are of course pros and cons to this, and we present as entitled and over-privileged. But these trends and behaviors had to be learned from somewhere.
Millennials are the children of the highest divorce rates in history. Exploring with more casual relationships and delaying marriage is the natural response. In order to evolve as humans, younger generations should strive for better. We have opportunities our elders didn’t have. Generation Z has broken binaries for greater freedom of identity expression.
With these changes and obvious displays of doing things differently, comes nearly constant questioning. The questioning ranges from genuine curiosity to having to justify your existence. Some elders are supportive while others seem resentful. Simple small talk like “what do you do?” becomes complicated and even stressful to try answering. For people my age, this is one of the top most uncomfortable topics of conversation. This is because emerging adults must navigate their own surfacing insecurities along with others’ projections.
If I hear “do it while you’re still young” one more time…
Personally, when older people inquire about my future, I feel like I need a scripted answer. It’s important to discern whether your perception of comments is because of your own self-doubts and emotions or other people’s. It also helps to master receiving compliments and criticism.
My lifestyle choices and general sense of uncertainty have been both celebrated and scrutinized by others, neither of which I try to rely on for validation. Although, it’s off-putting to have strangers openly make assumptions of you, especially when its out of spite or because they think they’re somehow saving you. I think I reveal more about my personal life and expenses to older people than they expect from their peers.
Usually I don’t mind answering questions for conversation’s sake. I like to share what I do and ideas for going forward. However, so many potentially nice, supportive conversations are tainted because I carry baggage from other similar conversations that are filled with animosity. Countless times the same questions have stirred anxiety from impromptu selling myself to half-interested people with condescending comments and who minimize me with their eyes. Why can’t we talk more about interests and the things that make us get out of bed in the morning instead of assessing each other’s worth?
Making friends becomes excruciatingly difficult after graduation. Sometimes colleagues can be cushion of social life, but unless you keep close with friends from high school and college, the next opportunity is pretty much your kids’ friends’ parents. People use apps to find friends like you would to find dates. Friendship instability is just one more thing added to the transitional phase that is emerging adulthood.
Part of why making new friends is difficult at this point in life is because even peers are intimidating. We all present like we have it all together and our lives are well-established on social media which makes us less approachable for those who in reality still consider themselves a work a in progress.
Plus, once everyone starts pairing off in serious monogamous relationships, it changes the focus so other life aspects/relationships drift. When we’re learning how to balance everything and what to prioritize, some things fall off the scale.
Crossing the Threshold
Undeniably emerging adulthood is hard. It’s not given the same sympathy as adolescence probably because those changes happen more in the body and because the expectations are higher. Emerging adults are tossed into the abyss often ill-equipped and with brains barely finished forming.
Suddenly there are bills and taxes, disappearing friends, an identity crisis, too many planets in retrograde to understand, and a somehow narrowing fertility window. Then someone asks “what do you do?” as if the hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt would be able to give a sufficient answer. Mental illness is highly prevalent in emerging adults succumbing to social and self-induced pressures. In the words of singer Olivia Rodrigo, new to the emerging adults club, it’s brutal out there.
The purpose of the post is to bring some comfort to emerging adults that there is a name for this thing you’re going through, and you’re doing great! For those of you who have crossed the threshold, now you might have a better idea what the heck is up with your younger relatives and why they don’t know either.
Youth is never wasted on you. Go explore what life has to offer! If you like this page, please share it.
Aadmodt (2011) interview https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=141164708
Arnett (2000) theory of development in American Psychologist journal https://worldcat.org/ILL/AE/s24jfJuo8
Whitehead and Popenoe (2001) survey http://www.stateofourunions.org/pdfs/SOOU2001.pdf