These four social transformations together have helped dramatically to alter the experience of American life between the ages of 18 and 30. Studies agree that the transition to adulthood today is more complex, disjointed, and confusing than it was in past decades. The steps through and to schooling, first real job, marriage, and parenthood are simply less well organized and coherent today than they were in generations past. At the same time, these years are marked by an historically unparalleled freedom to roam, experiment, learn (or not), move on, and try again.
What has emerged from this new situation has been variously labeled “extended adolescence,” “youthhood,” “adultolescence,” “young adulthood,” the “twenty-somethings,” and “emerging adulthood.” I find persuasive Jeffrey Arnett’s argument that, of all of these labels, “emerging adulthood” is the most appropriate””because rather than viewing these years as simply the last hurrah of adolescence or an early stage of real adulthood, it recognizes the unique characteristics of this phase of life. These, according to Arnett in Emerging Adulthood, mark this stage as one of intense (1) identity exploration, (2) instability, (3) focus on self, (4) feeling in limbo, in transition, in-between, and (5) sense of possibilities, opportunities, and unparalleled hope. These, of course, are also often accompanied by big doses of transience, confusion, anxiety, self-obsession, melodrama, conflict, and disappointment. Many popular television shows of the last two decades””Beverly Hills 90210, Dawson’s Creek, Seinfeld, and Friends, for example””have taken as their point of departure the character and challenges of this new, in-between stage of life. I think it all signifies something big and serious.
Note that some of the statistics about emerging adulthood today are not historically unique. For example, young Americans in the 19th and very early 20th century, when society was more rural and agricultural, also married later in life than they did in the 1950s. Nevertheless, changes in the larger culture and social order in late 20th-century America make the experience of emerging adulthood today very different from the young adulthood of a century ago.
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