Emerging Adulthood

August 23rd, 2010


On Sunday, the New York Times Magazine had an article, “What is it About 20-Somethings?“, that explores the idea of a distinct developmental stage called emerging adulthood. Jeffrey Arnett, a psychology professor at Clark University, coined this term and has written extensively about viewing the 20s as a life stage apart from adolescence and full-on adulthood.

He characterizes emerging adulthood as having its own psychological profile: identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between, experimentation in love, work and worldview, and what Arnett calls “a sense of possibilities.”

The article also brings in economic perspectives. With limited job prospects, people in their 20s may have fewer options for “settling down” and living and working in one place. This can extend the emerging adulthood experience. At the same time, many 20-somethings don’t have other means of financial support. Depending on socio-economic status, the rituals of this life stage may look different.

The article also highlights the linear nature of classical developmental psychology, in which life stages must be universal and essential. Richard Lerner, the chair of applied developmental science at Tufts University, is quoted as saying about classical theory, “If you don’t develop a skill at the right stage, you’ll be working the rest of your life to develop it when you should be moving on.”

When it comes to psychotherapy, classical theory is one of many ways to think about and understand development. We can also see development as an ongoing evolution, where certain tasks come around again and get re-experienced in new life stages.

Therefore, the experiences described in emerging adulthood aren’t necessarily ones to be mastered, but are characteristic of the 20s and may be revisited as time goes on.

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