December 03, 2014 10:30 PM | Lisa Gaudette (Administrator)


Most of us think of emerging adulthood as a time for identity work, but are we clear on what that means?  When people are exploring or reconsidering their identities, what exactly are they doing?  And what specific areas of life are they doing it in?

What Is Identity?

There has been much debate regarding exactly what identity is, and how it operates.  Is identity something that we hold onto and that is largely stable, or is it something that changes almost randomly?  This is more than a theoretical question – it serves as a compass in terms of what we think emerging adults are doing.  Are they constructing (or discovering) something long-term about themselves, or are they just winging it from one situation to the next?  Or could it be both?

We all play different roles in different areas of our lives.  We are a son or daughter to our parents, a partner and confidant to our significant other, a sounding board (and many other things) to our friends, a parent to our children, an employee to our boss, and a professor to our students – among many other things.

Do we enact the same “identity” in all of these relationships and situations?  And do these various roles mean the same thing to everyone?  Does everyone even play all of these roles in their lives?

If you have children, then you get to act out the identity of “parent.”  If you don’t have children, then in most cases you won’t play the role of parent.  If you have a partner, then you will play that role – but if you don’t have a partner, then that is probably not a role you’re playing at this specific time in your life.

Our “identity” is actually the sum-total of our various roles and commitments – along with the ways in which we act out these commitments.  (I, and others, call this “doing identity.”)  All aspects of our identity are developed and maintained within the context of relationships with other people – and these other people have important effects on the roles and commitments we hold and on how we act them out.  So none of us develop our identities by ourselves.

Identity is developed and maintained in many different content areas.  These include career/work, committed relationships, ethnicity, nationality, religion/spirituality, gender and sexuality, politics, and morality.  Clearly, not everyone engages in identity work in all of these domains – for example, some people don’t care about politics and don’t think much about it – but everyone does identity work in several domains. 

Are All Forms of Identity Addressed During Emerging Adulthood?

One of the central tenets of emerging adulthood theory is that EA is a time of identity exploration.  However, is this true for all content areas?  Do career, relationship, ethnic, national, religious/spiritual, gender, sexual, political, and moral identities all get addressed in the late teens and twenties?  If so, is this true for everyone?

A study by my mentor Dick Dunham and several of his colleagues indicated that, in most cases, if emerging adults were actively thinking about their identities at all, they were doing so in only one or two content areas.  If you think about it, this makes perfect sense.  Exploring new identity choices requires at least loosening (or preparing to loosen) one’s current commitments. Someone who loosens or discards too many of their commitments won’t have much to hold onto. So, by definition, exploration usually occurs in only one or two content areas at a time. 

Sometimes we can “package” different identity domains together and explore them simultaneously. For example, as Elli Schachter has found in his work with Orthodox Jews in Israel, one’s religious beliefs might constrain the relationship or sexual options that one can consider. But clearly it is difficult to explore in more than a couple of areas at a time.

So, again, are all identity domains addressed during emerging adulthood?  Although we undoubtedly need more longitudinal research examining this, the answer is likely to be “it depends.”  It depends on the specific person, her/his life situation (broadly defined), and the cultural context in question.  Because we don’t know exactly when emerging adulthood ends, we don’t know whether a given person who is thinking about identity issues within a given area is still an emerging adult.  If we say that someone is no longer an emerging adult once she/he has entered adult roles such as committed partnership and gainful employment, then by definition some people will leave emerging adulthood at 25, some will do so at 30, and others may not do so until close to 40.  This leaves a lot of leeway for identity issues to be addressed at different points in time, some of which may be beyond the time when the person is no longer an emerging adult.

Concluding Thoughts

What can we take from all of this?  Well, if we define the end of emerging adulthood as having made enduring commitments in career and committed partnership (and even this definition is slippery, because some people remain single or are not consistently employed), then for most people these two domains “should” be addressed during emerging adulthood.  Other domains, such as religion/spirituality, ethnicity, and nationality, may never be engaged – again depending on the person in question.  Domains such as sexuality may be engaged differently by different groups of people – for example, people from sexual minority groups will probably spend more time thinking and talking about their sexual identities than heterosexual people will.  But if we expand our definition of “sexual identity” to include the specific sexual practices and acts in which a person prefers (and does not prefer) to engage, then most people likely do consider their sexual identities at some point in time. Most people are sexually active during emerging adulthood, but does this mean that someone who is engaging in sexual behavior has considered her or his sexual identity?  Further, in societies where sexual expression is constrained, how is sexual identity developed?  Does it develop during emerging adulthood?  If not, when (and how) does it develop?

Finally, if we take into account that emerging adulthood may not exist in all cultural contexts, when (and how) do different aspects of identity develop in these types of contexts?  For example, in societies where careers and romantic partners are assigned rather than chosen, how do other aspects of identity (such as sexuality, ethnicity, and morality) develop?  What role do social contexts (personal relationships, as well as political and religious environments) play in identity development?

We have much work to do before we can make broad and strong statements about identity in emerging adulthood.  I hope that I have sketched out some of the empirical questions that remain to be examined, and that some of you will pursue these (and other) ideas concerning how people come to understand themselves.