Emerging Adulthood

Emerging adulthood is a phase of the life span between adolescence and full-fledged adulthood, proposed by Clark University professor, Jeffrey Arnett in a 2000 article in the American Psychologist. It primarily applies to young adults in developed countries who do not have children or begin a lifelong career in their early 20s. That emerging adulthood is a new demographic is contentious, as some believe that twenty-somethings have always struggled with ‘identity exploration, instability, self-focus, and feeling in-between.

The five standard milestones used to define ‘adult’ — completing university, leaving home, getting married, having a child, and establishing financial independence—are being achieved later, or not at all. The median age at first marriage in the early 1970s in the US was 21 for women and 23 for men; it had risen to 26 for women and 28 for men by the year 2009. A majority, 54%, of American mothers have a university education, and 20% of American women in their 40s do not have children; being childless was considered bizarre in the 1950s.

The study of emerging adulthood appears to be grounded within particular economic and historical contexts. Within industrialized economies at the present time, young people need increasing amounts of education to obtain jobs in many technical/professional fields. The pursuit of postgraduate training thus tends to delay marriage and permits added years of exploration (i.e., ‘finding oneself’) compared to earlier generations.

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