“Emerging Adulthood” or Emerging Hypothesis?

James Di Palma-Grisi, Columnist

If there is one thing psychologists do regularly, it is disagree with one another quite publicly about their pet theories (many of which, of course, later make it into the mainstream). The “emerging adulthood” hypothesis seems to be one of those contentious claims.

On August 18th, the New York Times Magazine published a widely read and widely responded-to article, “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” in which Robin Marantz Henig presents psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s movement to view the 20s as a distinct life stage.

Just as adolescence has its particular psychological profile, Arnett says, so does emerging adulthood: identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between and a rather poetic characteristic he calls “a sense of possibilities.” A few of these, especially identity exploration, are part of adolescence too, but they take on new depth and urgency in the 20s. The stakes are higher when people are approaching the age when options tend to close off and lifelong commitments must be made. Arnett calls it “the age 30 deadline,” Robin Marantz Henig reports in the New York Times Magazine.

Adolescence was recognized as a developmental stage in itself only recently in psychological history. Before such recognition, it was assumed that children were transformed instantly into adults. In one of my psychology lectures, the professor said, “Children are not little adults” and pointed out that neither are teenagers.

This, of course, is based in decades of biological science, during which gender-specific hormones propagate throughout the body, and key brain structures develop and mature. The prefrontal cortex, the brain area associated with decision-making and weighing long-term consequences among other functions, continues to mature until an indeterminate age.

With that in mind, adolescents certainly are doing both—growing from experience and developing naturally—whereas it is unclear what the 20-to-30 year-olds are doing. “Never trust anyone over 30” may be a catchy maxim, but those under 30 certainly are not in the same identical chock boxes either. The question is whether those closer to the dreaded marker are identical to those 10 or 20 years past it. If the hormones unleashed with adolescence change the mind and body of the adolescent, must there not be a similar change—similar in magnitude—for the designation of a new stage?

I find it strange that the stages of adolescence—the physical stages—are so well defined, whereas the perpetual development of the prefrontal cortex constitutes a novel stage in itself. It may be that such a continuous change may constitute its very own stage: adulthood. After the maturation of the emotional brain, which manifests in the many outbursts of adolescence, those outbursts subside a few years later, age depending, and they do not manifest after that unless under “normal” circumstances in which anyone would show emotion.

That transition, between adolescence and the next phase, is marked and observable. The notion of a somewhat arbitrary cutoff between 20 and 30, say, seems just that—an arbitrary cutoff. Would it be presumptuous to assume that an otherwise healthy cohort of overachieving 20-somethings would be their own sample, and their emotional health and occupational satisfaction reliable indicators? At that point, and at the risk of sounding Medieval, it seems that the difference between those in the phase and those outside it is the degree to which those outside have made up their minds about what to do. And if that is the case, the stage is not a stage at all, but rather a constant, apparently unyielding development of the prefrontal cortex throughout observed adulthood.

Also, if “emerging adulthood” was indeed a phase, it always should have been observable the way adolescence always has been. The characteristics of adolescence are more or less universally observable, whereas the characteristics of “emerging adulthood” are dependent on how many questions and how many jobs a person holds within 10 years, it seems. Of course, I am not a psychologist, but I believe we can be skeptical of these rather simplistic judgments about our cohort made by outside observers using highly questionable metrics to establish their claims.

Arnett’s push for “emerging adulthood” seems to use the same reason that a poll based on a short questionnaire would declare, “Millenials eager to change world!” Simply holding a large number of jobs doesn’t mean automatically that someone is indecisive or questioning. It may be reflective of an awful economy (which Henig mentions in her article) or multiple interests, rather than a vague sense of possibility. For instance, say I am interested in materials science and constitutional law, to take two polar opposites—would it be all that unreasonable for me to hold a different job each summer, followed by two internships, one in each field? Does that justify creating a new stage of psychological development?

Then, the inevitable question—what does this mean for us? In my analysis, it means we are a generation unafraid to question our own interests, but not relegated only to questioning those interests. It very well may be that the period of questioning is a more general period of exploration, with the questions being asked and the opportunities being taken; the two are not mutually exclusive. The typical period of exploration and questioning may be just a period, not a discrete psychological phase, no matter how tempting the prospect of institutionalizing and codifying the actions of the young.

As a generation unafraid to question our own interests, we can avoid the rueful careerists’ lament: that they chose the wrong field or simply wish they had done something else. We also can avoid the less pernicious, but perhaps more directly annoying, result of wishing to have explored something else—“I wish I had given it a shot”—and in so doing put our future frustrations to rest. In this regard, we can continue this “frustration saving” by banking our presumed primary interest for now in anticipation of having tried it for later periods of second-guessing. It would seem that the second-guessing now saves second-guessing later, when the options are all but permanently closed.

We should do the same with our politics; Exploring that socialistic or libertarian streak to see how it fits, or try on the jacket of the more plausible enemy. Democrats should become temporary Republicans to see whether, if their positions were true, their own beliefs would change. Then, and only then, should we make a judgment of our own beliefs.

Assume for a moment that rent control really did cause housing shortages, and work backward. Why could this be? Could the market explanation that lower prices cause people who can otherwise afford only to live together to live separately? If so, are there less open apartments for the people who otherwise would pool their funds? Then, ask yourself if that is plausible. It is no different than pursuing parallel protocareers in medicine and Kazakh culture, trying each on to see how agreeable it is to your present configuration.

If flexibility truly is our forte, then we are uniquely positioned—and perhaps more favorably positioned than the polls may present us to be—to solve the complicated problems for which ideology constantly fails to provide answers. If we can behave as the “policy mandarins” of the Obama Administration, regardless of your existing frame of reference, and examine the data as it is instead of how it would be if it was more stylish and immediately comprehensible, we may find ourselves inheritors of an ugly mess that we can, with enough sustained effort, solve and, in so doing, improve the world, as we apparently are so eager to do.

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One Response to “Emerging Adulthood” or Emerging Hypothesis?

  1. James Sasso says:

    I think James makes an important point here that was indeed raised in the The New York Times article; that this perceived change in the characters of people is really economically based. Generation Y, especially those over 20 or out of college grew up in times of extraordinary wealth. The world seemed to be bowing at the power of America. We could buy anything and do anything which we wanted because no matter what we would always find that perfect job in the real world.

    Translate that to the present day and the economic crisis has caused a collision of opposing ideals; that one should always pursue his dreams and that one should stabilize his life as soon as possible. Generation Y at the same time has to battle the inbred desire to chase its dreams while fighting in a strained economy to find a job. As such it seems obvious that we would live at home for longer (there are fewer jobs) and perhaps change jobs more often in search of better pay. We also, unfortunately or fortunately depending on your stance, have the security blanket of our parents who hopefully saved wisely.

    In the end though, I don’t think our generation is that different from previous generations where many people shifted jobs before settling. Another important distinction might be that there are fewer blue collar and skilled labor jobs today than in the past. People require an education and therefore are given more career path options than simply whatever skill or learned trade was acquired in youth.

    We’ll be fine and this “emerging adulthood” idea will pass as a normal occurrence of life.

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