Expanding the Boarders of Emerging Adulthood

October 14, 2014 10:05 PM | Lisa Gaudette (Administrator)

For my second blog entry as President-Elect, I would like to focus on expanding the borders of emerging adulthood. There is a great deal of diversity in the 18-29 year old age range, and our task in the coming years is to explore more and more of that diversity and how it impacts young people.

Many of the critics of EA theory claim that the theory doesn’t capture enough of the diversity of this age group. A couple of years ago, I attended an SRCD conference on the transition to adulthood. The term “emerging adulthood” was not used in any of the talks that I attended. When I approached one of the invited speakers and asked her why she didn’t use the term EA, she said that it referred to privileged college students and other individuals who had the financial resources to delay the onset of adult responsibilities. A colleague of mine who has an editorial role with one of the adolescent journals refuses to accept any papers that use the term EA, because he says there isn’t any evidence that most young people actually endorse Jeff Arnett’s five criteria.

The only way to address these critics is with empirical data. Do young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds experience EA? Does getting married or becoming a parent in one’s late teens or early twenties prevent someone from being an emerging adult? Do people who have to go to work to support their families experience emerging adulthood? What about foster children who “age out” of the foster care system – do they experience EA? If these groups of people do experience EA, how do they experience it? How is EA different for them than it is for college students?

We do know that there is something going on in the late teens and early-to-mid twenties that sets these years apart from adolescence. Brain development accelerates, risky behaviors increase, and the search for a sense of meaning and identity intensifies. These trends hold for both college students and those who don’t attend college. Our late-modern world has made it difficult to stay in one career for very long, such that even those people with no college education need to be fast on their feet. People are moving in and out of relationships more than in the recent past. Social media allow us to create online identities that often bear little resemblance to our daily lives. Although many of these phenomena are present in adolescence and in adulthood, they are experienced most intensely during the EA years.

I know of no other society that is better positioned to address these key issues than SSEA is.  It’s time for us to put our money where our mouths are. Let’s engage in more creative scholarship regarding EA. Let’s include more diverse individuals and groups in our EA research. Let’s study people from low socioeconomic brackets and find out how they experience EA. Let’s include both college and non-college individuals in the same studies, so that we can isolate the effects of college attendance on EA-related outcomes. Let’s conduct more family research on EA’s, so that we can understand how this age period is experienced within parent-child relationships. Let’s look into what normative emerging adult development looks like for different groups of people, as well as what abnormal emerging adult development looks like. Let’s include the EA criteria as variables in our work so that we can get a sense of how they play into the experience of this life period. And finally, let’s engage with our critics, respect their views, and dialog with them about how we can improve our approaches.

It is an honor to be your President-Elect, and I look forward to embarking on these adventures with all of you.