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Adulthood Interrupted

Young people are defining a new stage in life—what social scientists call “emerging adulthood.” They are postponing the pursuit of traditional benchmarks of maturity, such as career and marriage, in order to consider competing options while keeping commitment at arm’s length.

By Leslie Garisto Pfaff   •  Illustrations by Dan Page


illustration of a man in a tree swing‘‘He can’t commit to a relationship.” 

“She doesn’t care about a career.” 

“He doesn’t want to grow up.” 

These are the parental laments of the new millennium, reflecting frustration with a generation of young adults that is undeniably young but not entirely adult. As a group, 20-somethings seem to be redefining the transition to adulthood: extending their education, putting off marriage, returning home to live with their parents (earning them the sobriquet “boomerang generation”), and generally taking longer to settle into the next phase of their lives. 

Or maybe they’re not. A growing number of social scientists would argue that these young people have already entered the next phase: a potentially new life stage that’s earned the label “emerging adulthood” and that, in essence, is a kind of bridge between adolescence and traditional notions of adulthood. One of those scientists is Patrick Carr, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology in the School of Arts and Sciences in New Brunswick and an associate member of the MacArthur Foundation’s Network on Transitions to Adulthood. Emerging adulthood, he says, represents “a fundamental change in what we would normally consider the passage from adolescence to adulthood, which has typically been marked by a number of predictable milestones: finishing school, getting a job, partnering, marrying, having children.” It’s not that 20-somethings aren’t doing any of these things, Carr notes; they’re just doing them later, often out of the traditional order, and yes, sometimes permanently skipping a milestone or two. Maybe they’ve taken a job, but then decided to go back to school to get a graduate degree. Maybe they’ve embarked on a career, only to find that it isn’t remunerative or fully satisfying (Carr cites the case of one young man who’d left engineering to start life anew, happily, as a mortuary assistant). Or maybe they’ve dropped out of college, traveled for a year, almost married, moved back home, and are weighing their options. Whatever the personal trajectory, the unpredictability of emerging adulthood has left many parents scratching their heads in consternation. 

“It’s a challenge to the way families see and understand what’s going on with their kids,” says Jennifer Lynn Tanner, a developmental psychologist at the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy, and Aging Research at Rutgers and coauthor of the book Emerging Adults in America: Coming of Age in the 21st Century (American Psycho­logical Association, 2005). She notes that parents (and others) often see the instability and indecisiveness that mark emerging adulthood as somehow deliberate. “People say things like, ‘Look at what they’re doing to society’ or ‘Look at the impact they’ve made on the workplace,’” she says. “I sit on the other side and say, ‘Really? What did they do?’ I mean, no matter where they are, as an adult group they have the least power.”

So, if the phenomenon isn’t about 20-somethings purposefully slacking off, then what is behind it? Although the trend has been noted since the 1980s (and seems to have really taken hold about a decade ago), it’s clearly been exacerbated by the Great Recession. For many recent college grads, starting a career and finding their own place to live isn’t an option in an economy where well-paying entry-level jobs are scarce to nonexistent. Some have dealt with this new economic reality by going back to school to earn a graduate degree; others have opted to accept low-paying (or nonpaying) internships to gain a foothold in their chosen field. And when you can’t afford to pay the rent, boomeranging to your parents’ home makes a certain degree of financial sense. David Nakashian LC’09 graduated from Rutgers with a bachelor of arts in communication, a major he’d chosen because it seemed general enough to open doors in a variety of fields. A few months after graduation, he landed a job in public relations that offered him valuable experience but a modest starting salary, so he moved back in with his parents in suburban New Jersey. He figured he’d stay with them for a couple of years and then, with an ample savings account, find a place of his own. Instead, he lost the job when the company that hired him downsized, and, at 24, he’s still living in his parents’ attic and working part time setting up scenery at the Metropolitan Opera. He’s considered going back to school to get a graduate degree, but “I’m already in debt,” he says. “And, anyway, I know a lot of people who went back to school for an advanced degree and still can’t get jobs.” 

illustration of girl playing hopscotchEven if the economy were to rebound overnight, most researchers in the field agree that emerging adulthood would still be with us. The trend, says Tanner, is “influenced by macroeconomic changes, like advances in technology and a globalized economy,” that have radically transformed the workplace and made extended education and career flexibility essential for many young people. It’s also been influenced to no small degree by the women’s movement. “It used to be accepted that women dropped out of college at 20 to get married; today, the average age of marriage for women is 26,” says Charlotte N. Markey, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Rutgers–Camden. Statistics on women’s educational opportunities reflect nothing short of a sea change, with social ramifications that extend well beyond academia. In the past 40 years, the number of women going to college has increased by 236 percent, and the number opting to pursue a graduate degree has grown by more than 500 percent. In a world where women make up 56 percent of the undergraduate college population, delaying marriage (and, consequently, childbearing) beyond the median age (20.8 for women and 23.2 for men in 1970) isn’t just sensible; for many, it’s inevitable.

David Popenoe, who was founder and codirector of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers from 1997 to 2009, believes that changing attitudes about marriage are as much a cause of emerging adulthood’s prominence as an effect. “One assumes that, if you’re married, you’re no longer an ‘emerging adult,’” he says. “Postponing marriage gives you the option to prolong adolescence.” As to the causes for putting off wedlock, Popenoe lists, first and foremost, the sexual revolution, “which allowed men, especially, to have sex before marriage and to cohabit.” And then, he says, there’s the general social trend toward “ever greater individualism, a kind of libertarian spirit” that encourages people to look at marriage not as an institutional given but as an individual pursuit. “That means,” he says, “that you can take longer in the search for a mate, because you want to find that one person, that soul mate, who’s perfect for you.” It’s a trend that Carr refers to as “the planned marriage”: “My partner will be somebody who—fill in the blank. And I’ll marry when I’ve finished everything and have enough money to do it and it’s the right time for me and all my ducks are in a row.” For Hussain Rizvi SAS’11, who graduated with a bachelor of arts in journalism and media studies, marriage is definitely not a priority in the short term. “Anything could happen,” he says, “but I’d rather have enough money to support my wife before thinking about getting married.”

The libertarian spirit that Popenoe describes has also encouraged one of the most salient characteristics of emerging adulthood: a sense of experimentation, of trying on new roles—personal and professional—and of weighing options at a time when you still have the freedom to do that. “You don’t have to plunk into a career at 22 or 23, and this is a wonderful time to explore and find yourself. It’s what Jeff Arnett [a pioneer in the study of emerging adulthood, the term he coined] calls ‘the meandering toward adulthood,’” says Carr. In spite of the current economy, most emerging adults share an expansive sense of possibility. The world is still their oyster, and that great, big pearl might just be theirs for the grabbing.

To some, this may sound like little more than self-indulgence, the “Me Decade” of the 1970s spiffed up with a new name and a slightly different slant, or the kind of Peter Pan-ism that’s manifested itself in movies like Slackers and Pineapple Express. In fact, most of the researchers who study emerging adulthood perceive it, at least in part, as a positive trend. As a developmental psychologist, Tanner is inclined to view it as an essential adaptation to larger social changes, many of them wrought by the technological revolution of the past 20 to 30 years. “It’s a way of making room for training that’s more necessary now than it was 50 years ago,” she says. The ability to “try on” a variety of selves is also a largely positive thing for the young people who can take advantage of it. “Having options is a good thing,” says Markey, “particularly for young women, who don’t feel like they have to drop out of college to start having babies at 21.”

It may also be a good thing for marriage. “It was never wise to get married so young,” says Popenoe, “because those marriages tend to have a high breakup rate.” On the other hand, he notes, there’s new evidence that people who don’t marry until their 30s aren’t as happy in their marriages as those who married earlier and managed to stay together—possibly because “the longer you live outside of marriage as a lone person in pursuit of your joys and whims and career and so on, the harder it is to adjust to the regime of a close-knit marriage.” Given these observations, it’s possible that the ideal window of opportunity for marrying lies between the mid- to late-20s and early 30s.

And there are other drawbacks to a prolonged period of self-examination and experimentation. “A generation ago,” notes Markey, ”it was very clear what was ex­pected of you. Now, those expectations are less well defined, and it can be confusing to young people.” Like kids in a candy store, 20-somethings can be overwhelmed by the surfeit of options set before them: Do I go to grad school? Change my career trajec­tory? Take the first job that comes along and just chill for a few years? And if I choose one, will I regret not picking the others?

Still, this much choice is a luxury—which is exactly what places it out of reach for a significant percentage of the population. “There are some striking class differences,” notes Carr. “For those who are disadvantaged, it’s not an age of exploration; it’s a time of collective angst and of trying to stay afloat.” Young people grappling with economic and social hardships may not have a home to return to, and even if they do, they may still need to get a full-time job to bring in desperately needed in­come. For most of them, graduate school is an unaffordable extravagance. Factor in the Great Recession, and you have the potential for a new generation of haves and have-nots.      

Emerging adulthood can also be a difficult stage for young people with emotional or psychological problems. “Because there are more opportunities and more choices, the decision-making process is more complex,” says Tanner. With its open-ended array of decisions and options, the phase can be daunting to almost anyone; 20-somethings who are emotionally unequipped to make those decisions can easily end up floundering. And if they do, they’re unlikely to find mental health care targeted at their unique life stage: “The mental health world,” Tanner notes, “is bifurcated into child/adolescent care and adult care. And treatment at community mental health centers drops precipitously after age 17, because young people with mental health problems ‘age out’ of youth care, and we don’t have programs targeted at connecting them to adult treatment.”

There’s another group likely to find themselves grappling with the challenges of emerging adulthood: parents. Many of them are surprised to discover that the empty nest they’d adjusted to has been reinhabited by noisy, demanding, overgrown fledglings. The trope is reflected in popular culture, in films and TV series like Failure to Launch, $#*! My Dad Says, and even The Sopranos. (Bewildered when his son, A.J., drops out of college and passes his days watching TV in bed, Tony Soprano broaches the subject with his therapist, Dr. Melfi, who sagely responds that “Thirty is the new 20.”) The phenomenon of emerging adulthood can be baffling for people who expected to be largely done with childrearing when their children graduated from college, and hadn’t factored in the extra expense of paying for an advanced degree or feeding and clothing an adult child. “We’re seeing a kind of squeeze for people in their 40s and 50s, who are still paying for their kids after college while having to contribute to the welfare of their own parents,” says Carr. If you’re a parent hoping this will all just go away when the economy revives, don’t count on it. Most researchers think emerging adulthood will be with us for a long time to come, and some even believe it’s been there all along.

“Emerging adulthood has always been around,” says Tanner. “It’s just that it’s reached a normative proportion in our society and other industrialized societies.” There have always been young people, she asserts, who have either been compelled or enabled to undergo a prolonged period of experimentation and delay the traditional milestones: artists, for one, and the children of the wealthy for another. The difference is that, until recently, the majority of young people didn’t have the means or the opportunity to do so.

Carr has a slightly different take on it: he and his wife, Maria Kefalas, a sociologist at St. Joseph’s University, researched the lives of young people in Iowa for their book Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America (Beacon Press, 2009). Many of these young adults, Carr says, could have enjoyed a period of emerging adulthood but, apparently, chose not to. “For a significant number of them,” he observes, “there was a real attachment to, and a pride in, doing things the old-fashioned way: doing things in order, in a timely way, because that’s what people do.” Where he does agree with Tanner, and with most other observers of the phenomenon, is in the view that emerging adulthood is a genuine life phase. In that sense, it’s similar to adolescence, which wasn’t recognized as a distinct stage until the 1880s, when it was “discovered” by the American psychologist G. Stanley Hall at a time when cultural changes, including industrialization and urbanization, allowed it to flourish. 

If that’s so—if emerging adulthood is accepted by the culture as a whole as an inevitable phase in the transition to full maturity—we’re going to have to change the way we view maturation. The psychological community, for instance, may need to develop a unique set of treatment standards for emerging adults, as it did in the last century for adolescents. Colleges may have to put more stress on professional development to help young people meet the demands of a changing economy. Government may need to view emerging adults as a new class of potential depen­dents (as, indeed, it already has, in the decision to allow children up to age 26 to be covered by their parents’ health insurance). And families may have to prepare themselves, emotionally and financially, to support their grown children into their mid-20s and beyond. So, fasten your seat belts: emerging adulthood is taking off, and it’s likely to be a bumpy rite.