Psychologists suggest new stage of development: ‘emerging adulthood’

As more individuals pursue higher education than ever before, contemporary American society faces major changes. One psychologist argues this cultural shift has profound impact on development in young adults, bringing about a distinct new stage of development between adolescence and adulthood.

Jeffrey Arnett, a research professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, suggested a new stage of development occurring between the ages of 18 and 25 called “emerging adulthood.” According to his research, this stage of development includes the exploration of identities, instability in work and relationships, pursuing independence and feeling as if life holds many possibilities. 

“In previous times, we’ve had child development as a specific point of development, and then we go right into adult development,” said Dr. Holly Kihm, assistant professor of family and consumer science. “There was something missing that was in between… In contemporary societies, we have a lot more adolescents remaining in the adolescent category because they are not considered fully independent adults yet. Part of that is because we have many individuals going to college, and so while you’re taking on more responsibilities, you may not be 100 percent responsible for all your expenses.” 

According to Kihm, this newly defined stage of development has many benefits for some individuals. Because the transition from adolescence to adulthood is more gradual, emerging adults are not burdened with all of life’s responsibilities at once. They can take this time to adjust to adulthood, make mistakes with fewer consequences and explore different options before solidifying major life decisions. 

However, prolonging adulthood can also be problematic. Emerging adults who have extensive financial support from parents during this stage of development may find it difficult to become fully independent. It is more common in contemporary American society for youth to “boomerang” and return to their parents’ house after leaving. On the other hand, individuals from low income households, or from families who are unable or unwilling to support them through emerging adulthood, may be forced into adulthood much earlier than their peers. 

“We’re expecting [individuals from low income households], once they’re age 18, to enter an adult-focused workforce, which they probably aren’t ready for,” said Kihm. “In the full adult workforce, you have many responsibilities. You have to be at work, and you’re responsible for all of the things you may not have been responsible for before, such as paying your insurance and making sure you have transportation.” 

Older individuals may also face problems while supporting their emerging adolescent children. The financial strain of supporting children through this stage of development can prevent the possibility of retirement. To remedy potential problems emerging adolescents and their families may face, many high schools are implementing apprenticeships and other programs designed to provide students with skills useful in the professional world, therefore allowing more students to achieve independence at an earlier age. 

While emerging adulthood is a time of hope and vivacity in some aspects, others may find the instability of college life difficult to manage. Kihm encourages college students to utilize resources available in order to ease the transition into adulthood. 

“Emerging adulthood can be an overwhelming time for students,” said Kihm. “Our campus offers a lot of resources from tutoring and the Writing Center, to the food pantry and free, confidential counseling.  While we want students to graduate with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the workforce, we also want them to graduate having felt supported throughout this time in their lives.”