Jeffrey Arnett:The emergence of a new life stage
Jennifer Silva:They are alone and without opportunity
Read more about Professor Arnett’s research on emerging adulthood here
Read more of Jennifer’s thoughts on the current state of America’s working-class 20- and 30-somethings in her recent New York Times piece.
Jeffrey Arnett v. Jennifer Silva
My own work suggests that emerging adulthood is experienced very differently depending on the social background‒and structure of opportunity available‒to the young person in question. The freedom to delay marriage and childbearing, experiment with flexible career paths, and pursue higher education has granted many contemporary young adults the luxury to define what it means to be an adult on their own terms; for this group, emerging adulthood may be a time of optimism, of exploring potential identities and pathways before they settle down. Privileged young adults may delay adulthood to backpack through Southeast Asia or take an unpaid internship in the field of their dreams, or may simply live with their parents’ longer so save money for school or a home.
Yet inequality is increasing in America, not only of income and wealth, but of knowledge, commitment, trust, and opportunity. For working-class men and women, who grow up without the knowledge, skills, and parental resources to navigate a world of disappearing jobs, soaring education costs, shrinking social support networks, and fragile families, emerging adulthood means coming to terms with the absence of choice. Whether bouncing from one temporary job to the next, dropping out of college because they can’t figure out financial aid forms or choose a major, relying on their credit cards for medical emergencies, or avoiding romantic commitments because they can only take care of themselves, working-class men and women experience bewilderment, distrust, and powerlessness as they come of age. Simply put, this group can’t grow up‒not now, and probably not in the future either, if growing up means settling down into lasting jobs and families, or finishing college, or even buying and keeping a home.
My work dovetails with Arnett’s in that the working-class youth I studied emphasize adulthood as an individual endeavor. But their stories of self-exploration are born of insecurity, not options. The men and women I spoke with cannot point to a promotion, a diploma on the wall, or a wedding band on their finger to mark their progress through life. Instead, it is up to them to redefine the contours of a meaningful adult life. Rather than turn to politics to address the obstacles standing in their way, many crafted deeply personal coming of age stories, grounding their adult identities in recovering from their painful pasts‒whether addictions, childhood abuse, family trauma, or abandonment‒and forging an independent, transformed adult self. These new definitions of adulthood stem from a larger cultural discourse on economic self-reliance and emotional self-help. They make a virtue out of focusing on self-growth because they can’t expect traditional markers of adulthood to ever be possible in their lives‒even as they mourn the loss of lasting jobs and lasting social ties.
As the markers of adulthood of older generations slip through their fingers, the young men and woman I spoke with are working hard to remake adulthood in terms of emotional self-growth. This deeply personal approach lends a sense of progress and meaning to otherwise unsatisfactory lives. But there is also a darker side to this emerging adulthood, one that leads them to take sole responsibility for their own emotional states. Kelly, a twenty-eight year old line cook who has lived on and off in her car while battling depression, declared, “When I start feeling helpless, I just have to make a conscious decision to not feel that way. There’s just no other choice. No one else is going to fix me but me.” Emerging adulthood is thus not a time of optimism because the world that awaits them is full of choices; it is a time of making the best of their circumstances and willing themselves to fix their lives. If we accept this period as a life phase without changing the lack of opportunity that underlies it, then we leave these working-class young men and women to a life of constantly seeking self-improvement in a world that doesn’t want to give it.
But there’s more to the longer road to adulthood than just economics. Three changes in 1960s and 1970s changed the shape of youth as it is experienced today. The Sexual Revolution broke the traditional link between sexuality and marriage, leading to widespread cohabitation and later timing of marriage and parenthood. The Women’s Movement led to more opportunities for young women in the workplace, relieving the social pressure on them to find a husband as soon as possible or be relegated to the dreaded status of “old maid.” And the Youth Movement exalted youth and denigrated maturity and aging, which made young people want to extend the time before they committed themselves to adult roles.
Put all these changes together, and what you have is a new life stage between adolescence and young adulthood, which I call “emerging adulthood,” lasting from the late teens to the late twenties. I think it’s better to think of the changes in young people’s lives as the rise of this new life stage, rather than measuring them by an outdated timetable and finding them to be late in growing up…(next page)